The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear a case Monday to determine if repressed memories can be used in a church sexual abuse lawsuit. If the case moves forward, the decision could lead to more sexual abuse lawsuits going to trial.
The lawsuit, filed by James Keenan against the Archdiocese of Minneapolis & St. Paul as well as the Diocese of Winona in 2006, alleges he was sexually abused by a priest named Thomas Adamson sometime between 1980 and 1982.
By filing a lawsuit decades after the incident occurred, Keenan's claim falls outside the statute of limitations. Under Minnesota law, individuals can bring a lawsuit within six years of turning 18-years-old or when they knew or should have known about the abuse.
According to his lawyer, Jeff Anderson, Keenan didn't initially remember the incident.
"He suffered as a youth and then repressed the memory of the abuse and only in 2002 did it surface, and then brought this action," Anderson said. "And now the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Diocese of Winona are saying he's not entitled to a day in court because he waited too long. But in fact he couldn't even have had any opportunity to even bring the case, much less remember he had been abused."
The church is hiding behind the statue of limitations, Anderson said.
"Well the Supreme Court is really deciding whether a survivor of abuse has an opportunity to have the courthouse door open to him when his memory of the abuse has been repressed," he said.
The question before the court is a little more specific: is memory repression reliable scientifically.
Attorneys on both sides agree that what's at stake here is whether or not Keenan can continue with his lawsuit against the church. If the court sides with Keenan, no doubt memory repression will be used in other lawsuits against the church that are otherwise outside the statute of limitations.
Tom Wieser, the lawyer for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis & St. Paul, said there is a lot of uncertainty in the field of psychology about memory and memory repression.
"If the experts who are dealing with this issue cannot reach agreement on the concept, then we don't want the jury to be put in a spot of having to make some decisions on a topic the experts can't agree on," he said.
Experts in the field of psychology say the science surrounding memory is complicated.
Research has shown that people can conjure up false memories just as well as factual ones, said Geoffrey Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"People can be provided with memories, basically, and that people can come to have memories that are very real-seeming to them and at that they can relate in detail and with great confidence," he said. "But memories that are, unbenounced to them, entirely fictional."
The Minnesota Supreme Court won't likely make a ruling in the case for several weeks or months.