The only psychiatrist appointed this week to serve on the Roman Catholic Church's national sexual abuse review board is closely affiliated with a controversial group devoted to combating what it believes are false memories of childhood abuse that never occurred.
Paul R. McHugh, former chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, serves on the scientific advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a Philadelphia-based group many therapists view as unsympathetic to victims of child sexual abuse. McHugh has testified on behalf of people accused of child abuse.
"People are upset by this because he's clearly someone who wants to downplay the horror of sexual abuse," said Paul Fink, professor of psychiatry at Temple University and past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who described false memory syndrome as "junk science."
Fink said he did not believe McHugh's views were representative of clinicians, most of whom accept the notion that traumatic memories are sometimes repressed as a way for victims to cope.
Stu Philip of Vienna, Va., who edited a newsletter in the 1990s for victims of child sexual abuse, said he was "astonished" the church would put on the panel "somebody who in any way is affiliated with an organization which says . . . that the vast majority of people who make claims [of abuse] are deluded or had memories implanted by therapists."
McHugh, 71, labeled such criticism "ridiculous," adding, "I don't have a bias for child abusers."
As far as he knew, McHugh said, cases involving abusive priests are not based on repressed memories. "The church is in trouble because of things that have been corroborated over and over again. The issues here have very little to do with false memories," McHugh said, adding that he remains very proud of his long-standing involvement with the foundation.
Many victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests who recently came forward never forgot their abuse, though some did. Last month's indictment of retired Boston priest Paul Shanley on charges of child rape is based on allegations prosecutors said were made by a 24-year-old man whose memories of the abuse returned only recently.
Frederick S. Berlin, a psychiatrist at Hopkins and founder of an affiliated sexual disorders clinic, defended his colleague. "It's very unfair criticism," Berlin said. "He's committed to making sure the abused children are given proper care, but he's also concerned about the horror of being falsely accused. He simply tried to suggest that people keep their minds open."
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which appointed the board, also defended McHugh's selection, saying his views on repressed memories are "an issue within psychiatry and his opinion should be based on his credentials, which are very good indeed."
McHugh, who chaired Hopkins's psychiatry department for 25 years, was among eight new appointees named this week to the 13-member National Review Board. Chaired by Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating, it was set up by the bishops in June to monitor implementation of new guidelines for handling child sexual abuse.
Working with the conference's new Office for Child and Youth Protection, the board will monitor diocesan responses to allegations of child sex abuse and a national study of "the causes and context" of the church's problem of clerical sexual abuse.
The nonprofit False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded a decade ago by a Philadelphia couple whose daughter accused her father, a University of Pennsylvania professor, of repeated molestation and her mother of permitting and then denying it. The daughter, then in her thirties, said she recovered her memories at a time she was undergoing therapy.
Debate about the reliability of long-forgotten memories of abuse is as old as psychoanalysis itself. Sigmund Freud proposed that painful memories are sometimes "forgotten" -- buried deep in the unconscious where they exert a powerful impact on behavior. He later decided that female patients' long-buried memories of incest were fantasies.
Contemporary studies have done little to clarify the issue.