Greg Arpin, with stacks of legal papers and studies about memory tucked under his arm, is a lawyer with a daunting task.
He is defending the Catholic Diocese of Spokane against monstrous claims that priests sexually abused boys decades ago. So far, it’s a $76 million responsibility, an amount he needs to dramatically cut down if the diocese is to survive bankruptcy and continue ministering to 97,000 Catholics in Eastern Washington.
While the diocese publicly seeks to atone for the terrible acts of a few priests, privately it is mounting a tough-minded defense.
“It’s a fine line,” Arpin said, knowing that he will be going up against victims with frightful memories.
Let there be no doubt, however, that the diocese will be aggressive against claims it considers false. Arpin is convinced that some claims are dubious, and he bristles at the notion of the diocese paying on baseless allegations.
The diocese has expert witnesses, including noted psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, lined up to debunk the reliability of buried memories.
Loftus has helped the defense in many notorious cases. Among them: Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, the Hillside Strangler, child molesters and pedophile priests. Her work challenges the accuracy of witnesses and victims, including eyewitnesses and those with buried memories.
While she knows children are sexually abused, she asserts that memories are stored and remembered – not hidden and then one day revealed.
She says memories are malleable. Unreliable. Easily manipulated.
“If any of these cases go to trial, we have to present an argument,” Arpin said, “and we’re ready.”Troubled lives, recent realizations
Of the 62 alleged victims who have filed lawsuits, most will argue that they didn’t – until recently – link their sexual abuse as a child to a lifetime of troubles from such things as alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, failed relationships, problems with authority and aversion to religion.
These recent realizations are their best chance in court. Washington state law has a statute of limitations that allows such claims to be filed within three years of the date when a victim first connects abuse with harm.
Very few are pursuing classic repressed memory syndrome cases, a thorny psychological theory that contends some events are so horrific that the brain represses the memory.
The controversial idea, also called dissociative amnesia, holds that such memories can be coaxed with the help of a therapist or triggered by certain events.
Defense attorneys in other cases have often painted repressed memory as junk science. They hire experts who punch holes in the syndrome and believe the odds of finding skeptical jurors are worth the risk of trial.
Among those pursuing a repressed memory case is Michael Ross, the outspoken co-founder of Spokane’s chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
He said a lifetime of harm is directly due to abuse he suffered in the late 1960s as a 12-year-old. Ross claims he didn’t even know he was sexually abused until repressed memories were uncovered within the past few years.
“It’s true,” he said. “Apparently, it was how I tried to cope.”
Attorneys don’t want their clients discussing repressed memories in interviews for fear they might say something a defense attorney can use against them.
Some victims say the Spokane Diocese has attempted to steer them into making repressed memory claims so that it can later demolish them in front of a judge and jury.
Helping the diocese do that will be psychologist Loftus. Frequently the star defense witness in repressed memory cases, she has spent a lifetime attempting to discredit such claims.
Both vilified and praised for her work, she was named among the most influential psychologists of the 20th century by the Review of General Psychology.
The flood of priest sex-abuse claims referring to repressed memory will no doubt have to pass through her, Arpin said.
“Her work is scientific, proven and we plan to use it,” he said.
On the other side sits Jon Conte, a University of Washington professor and memory expert.
He has been involved in the cases of 300 to 400 people who claim they were abused by clergy during the past 20 years and helped piece together personal injury evaluations that assess the damage resulting from sexual abuse.
Conte said while priest abuse cases are similar to those in which someone accuses a family member, there are important differences. Among them is the role of priests in Catholic families.
“This is literally God’s representative on Earth. They are the closest thing to God … and you can’t get to God but through the priest,” he said. “So it leads to additional trauma if one is being hurt by such a person.”
Conte said victims almost always lose the faith. It’s especially difficult because in many families the church is not just religious but cultural.
“Then holidays like Christmas and Easter become lost,” Conte said. He added that often when kids did tell, families didn’t believe their stories.
Part of the reason: Some parents were victimized, too.
“It is the greatest fear of parents that something like this could happen to their child,” Conte said. “We used to think it was the guy in the trench coat with yellow teeth, not the trusted man in black robes.”Legal closure elusive
Conte believes the Catholic Church has uncovered and expelled most pedophiles from ministry. He doubts much sexual abuse is happening today and believes that parents are more attuned to potential problems.
Also, he believes most victims have already come forward.
“I’m not sure of this idea that there are still large numbers of victims out there,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten most of this generation of victims, and I think the church would be surprised if there are still large numbers.”
The Catholic Church hopes to understand the full scope of the abuse. But the possibility that the door could remain open for future claims is troubling for the church.
In Portland, a judge has given victims until April 29 to come forward.
That deadline, however, is not for everyone. The judge will allow people to come forward in the future as part of a special “future claims committee.”
Those people eligible include today’s children who can’t be expected to tattle on priests; adults in the future who claim repressed memories kept them from asserting a claim; and anyone who was abused but hasn’t yet realized that abuse is to blame for trouble in their lives.
The ruling does not afford the Portland archdiocese the closure it sought when filing for bankruptcy.
“It scares us,” Spokane Diocese attorney Shaun Cross has said, likening the decision to the asbestos cases that leave companies exposed to future legal problems that are unknown and potentially unaffordable.
The Spokane Diocese will seek a firm deadline. Any future claims committee, Cross said, should give the diocese some sort of certainty of its liabilities.
Michael Pfau, who represents victims, said the real aim of the diocese is to bar future claims.
“There are people out there who may not realize the extent of the abuse and what it has done to them,” he said.
Victims have several months to come forward with their claims. While the deadline is listed as April, the diocese has indicated a willingness to push it back several months.Search for victims
In the Portland case, plaintiffs asked Conte to act as an adviser to find other victims.
They came up with a multipronged media campaign. It was explicit and specific, featuring pictures of pedophile priests and testimonials of victims. The cost: a reported $37 million.
The media campaign never aired.
Instead, the judge ordered the archdiocese to run a far more conservative campaign of newspaper advertisements in large regional newspapers including The Spokesman-Review, the Oregonian and both big Seattle dailies, at a fraction of the cost.
The ads, run in black and white with no pictures and occupying less than a quarter-page, also ran in USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.
Conte declined to speculate on their effectiveness, and he remains critical of the church’s handling of abuse victims.
“What Scripture and reconciliation teaches us is to truly repent,” he said. “This has not yet happened. Instead, church officials have terrible memories.
“If you look at their sworn depositions they say they can’t remember. What they should be saying is ‘Yes, we made a mistake. We are truly sorry. What must we do?’ “