Memory, Statute of Limitations, and Justice


Submitted to Pioneer Press by the Catholic Defense League August 1, 2014

Debra O’Connor’s 7/21/2014 article “In Ventura’s defamation case, eyewitness memories on trial, too” shed light on a topic that should be considered well beyond the Ventura defamation trial. At issue was how there could be such dramatically different eyewitness accounts of an incident that happened less than eight years ago.

O’Connor notes that U of M Law professor Francis Shen literally wrote a book on how memory issues play a sometimes significant role in the courtroom. The article quotes Shen, who also did post-doctoral academic work in neuroscience, saying “The take-home point is something that memory science has known for some time and law has been slow to recognize: we have a lot more confidence in eyewitness testimony than we ought to have.”

Indeed, eyewitness testimony DOES have its limits, particularly as time passes from an alleged incident. We applaud Ms. O’Connor on her reporting of this very important issue. It is a very timely topic in light of the ongoing investigations and reporting of the Catholic clergy sex abuse allegations. As with the conflicting testimony in the Jesse Ventura defamation case, the Church’s bishops are being asked to recall details regarding personnel decisions that occurred well over a decade ago, in some cases up to 30 years ago. When they fail to remember the specific details, they are often mocked in the press who “wonder aloud” if the faulty memory is part of “the cover-up.”

Ms. O’Connor’s article went on to say, “Alcohol and drug use impair memories. And the passage of time can make a big difference.” This is an excellent point, which bolsters the rationale for statutes of limitations in virtually every cause of action except murder. Witnesses are often missing or deceased, and memories are faded. Allowing cases to be brought many years, sometimes decades, later is grossly unfair to the accused. Does it mean that clergy abuse never occurred? Sadly, certainly not. But the legal system is designed to weigh the scales of justice. The notion of justice is mocked if we seek to compensate all who claim to have been aggrieved, at the expense of those who may be wrongly accused. Statutes of limitations are but one way that the scales of justice are balanced – making it “fair” for both sides. Did clergy abuse occur? Did Father X abuse Person Y? That is something different. We should not and cannot assume that every allegation is true. This is the reason the legal system assumes a person is innocent until PROVEN guilty.

The accused also have a right to due process. False allegations of sexual abuse can, and have, led to the accused becoming the victim, whose reputation can never be fully recovered. For example, the late Bishop Paul Dudley was accused of these same crimes, was investigated, and was exonerated. Exonerated or not, however, this innocent man’s reputation was smeared in the worst way. A solid reputation as a holy man, smeared in the press in his twilight years. Steps should be taken to protect those who are wrongly accused.

The Minnesota Legislature voted to temporarily waive the statute of limitations so that old sexual abuse cases can be brought forward, regardless of the passage of time since the allegation took place. Consideration of the findings of memory science would have certainly helped guide the legislators to see the error of such action before they passed the law. We must wonder if memory science or even a sense of justice was a serious consideration in the minds of the legislators who voted for this law.

It is hard to fathom legislators keeping a balanced view of things. And who can blame them? After all, the new law was pushed over the finish line by the House DFL Caucus and the Senate DFL Caucus. Coincidentally, Jeff Anderson, the main attorney fighting to bring as many allegations against priests, bishops, and the Archdioceses as a whole, PERSONALLY contributed $25,000 to the same House DFL Caucus AND another $25,000 to the same Senate DFL Caucus, in 2012. Once they got into the majority, House DFL Treasurer, Rep. Steve Simon, gladly authored the House version of the legislation. Mr. Anderson’s political investment paid off handsomely. And as one hand washes another, Mr. Anderson has, this year alone, rewarded DFL causes with a whopping $120,000 for their efforts. This is in addition to his contributions to Rep. Simon’s campaign for State House.

How cozy.

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