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Psychiatrist's Appointment to Abuse Panel Criticized

Catholics: Some victims' advocates oppose the expert, who is against patient therapy based on recovered memory.

September 14, 2002|From Associated Press

BALTIMORE — Ever since U.S. Roman Catholic bishops set up a review board this summer to monitor the church's response to the clerical sex abuse crisis, victims' advocates have been voicing concern about a prominent psychiatrist named to the group.

Paul McHugh, a longtime department chairman at Johns Hopkins University, has vowed to fight child abuse "tooth and nail." But he is being criticized for his opposition to therapy for sex abuse victims based on recovered memory.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network for Those Abused by Priests, said his group is troubled by McHugh, who has testified in court on behalf of accused abusers he believed were innocent. Clohessy said McHugh's reputation could keep victims from coming forward.

"When people read that--whether it's fair or not--you know people are going to be tempted to say, 'Well, forget it. The deck is stacked,' " Clohessy said.

McHugh replies that "it's pretty ridiculous that people would say that I'm not on the side of abused children and young people."

The psychiatrist will join other members of the National Review Board for a meeting Monday in Oklahoma City, where they will discuss ways to evaluate how well dioceses are complying with the reform policy approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June. The board members were appointed by Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president.

Opposition to McHugh has arisen in part because of his support for the False Memory Foundation, a Philadelphia group whose members work to debunk a therapy based on the belief that traumatic experiences can be repressed for years.

McHugh said the therapy has created false memories of abuse in some patients, causing people to be unfairly accused.

"It's possible to be on the side of the abused person and still be on the side of somebody who was falsely accused too," McHugh said. "Not only are they compatible. They are implicit in one another."

But Lana Lawrence, who has edited a news journal for adults who were abused as children, said McHugh and members of the False Memory Foundation have too often come down on the side of alleged abusers.

"I think that he has done a lot to hurt victims, and no matter how much he claims he cares about victims, his past actions speak otherwise," she said.

McHugh, 71, has served as a lay Catholic member of a board that reviews child sexual abuse cases for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

He also testified on behalf of the Rev. A. Joseph Maskell and the Baltimore Archdiocese in a 1995 lawsuit filed by two women who claimed the priest raped them in the 1970s when they were high school students.

The women sought an exemption to the statute of limitations on such lawsuits, arguing that post-traumatic stress disorder prevented them from recalling the rape for 20 years. McHugh discounted the scientific validity of their claims, and Maryland courts refused to extend the limit.

Out of the thousands of mental health experts the bishops could have chosen, Clohessy said, "I think it's sad and perhaps telling that they select one who ... repeatedly sided with molesters."

McHugh said he believes he was chosen because of his experience. For 26 years, he was chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is now a professor emeritus.

While he doesn't deny the possibility that abuse could be forgotten by young victims, McHugh said that "clear misdirections of standard psychiatric practice" have resulted in thousands of false abuse claims--of all types, not just church-related--over the years.

Lawrence said she believes McHugh is exaggerating the number of false accusations. Paul Fink, professor of psychiatry at Temple University and past president of the American Psychiatric Assn., said McHugh's views on repressed memories focus on poor therapists and ignore good ones.

"Sometimes we have to believe what the child says, or what the adult person says happened to them as a child, and we have techniques as therapists to determine whether they are valid or invalid statements," Fink said.

But Catholic leaders and McHugh's colleagues still support him.

"He's just cautioned that one needs to work very hard to get it right," said Frederick Berlin, another psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins. "He's very concerned that children who have been abused be believed. That's critically important."

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