What Science Says About ‘The Keepers’ and Repressed Memories

The Netflix documentary series explores the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik and allegations of abuse by a priest at the high school where she taught.

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Jun 1 2017, 4:52pm

Image: Screengrab/Netflix

There's a lot to unpack in Netflix's latest true crime series, "The Keepers," which investigates the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik. But one of the biggest questions that hangs over the docu-series is the question of repressed, and recovered, memories: are they real and can they be trusted?

"The Keepers" explores whether Sister Cathy's death could be linked to allegations of sexual abuse by a priest at the high school where she taught. Some people suspect that Cathy knew about the abuse and intended to speak up, which made her a target. But these allegations didn't come to light until the early 90s, over two decades after Cesnik was killed, when one of the victims suddenly claimed to have recovered previously repressed memories of years of abuse.

The district attorney and the Catholic Church refused to act, so she and another victim filed civil suit against the accused priest, the church, and the school. The case was dismissed by a judge because the statute of limitations for civil claims by juveniles in Maryland had expired. The two victims—who have since come forward as Jean Wehner and Teresa Lancaster, and star in the documentary—hoped to prove that since their memories had been repressed, the statute of limitations should be extended, but the judge ruled against their argument.

Part of the problem is that in 1994, when the civil case was launched, there was a lot of debate around the concept of repressed memories, recovered memories, and false memories, and how reliable they really were. The idea had flourished in the media in the 80s and 90s, and by that year it had become apparent that some claims of forgotten-then-remembered instances of childhood trauma weren't real at all.

People introduced the theory of false memory syndrome, where exaggerated or false memories of abuse are conjured up thanks to the suggestion of therapists and the influence of media reports. By 1994, psychiatrists and experts really didn't have an answer as to whether an adult could suddenly and accurately remember long-repressed memories of abuse from childhood. Was it ever real, and if so, how could you tell?

Since then, the science has become more clear. Some experts now say false memory syndrome, the condition where someone remembers something that never happened, isn't really a thing, or at least it's very rare. Meanwhile, we've built a much stronger understanding of how and why childhood trauma could lead to repressed memories. Research has found that these experiences can cause intense stress, flooding the hippocampus—the part of the brain considered to be the center of memory and emotion—with steroid hormones, and disrupting the way memories are stored.

Studies show that there are cases of suddenly recalled memories of trauma that can be corroborated with evidence, indicating it's a real phenomenon. Other studies have shown that as many as 25 percent of childhood sexual abuse victims forget or repress the memories of this trauma at some point in their adult lives.

By 2002, when the Boston Globe blew open the child sex abuse scandal that had festered within the Catholic Church, the understanding of repressed memories was more firmly established. It led to the conviction of ex-priests like Paul Shanley, who attempted to appeal the decision. The Massachusetts Supreme Court held the conviction, stating that "the judge's finding that the lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable the theory that an individual may experience dissociative amnesia was supported in the record, not only by expert testimony but by a wide collection of clinical observations and a survey of academic literature."

But around the same time, other similar cases were thrown out or overturned based on the evidence of recovered memories. It's unfortunately still not a clear-cut science: there's a lot we don't yet understand about how memory works, and without corroborating evidence it can often be hard to prove that a victim's memories are accurate, especially when they're recovered decades after the abuse.

When it comes to "The Keepers" case, the Catholic Church eventually seemed to accept the reality of recovered memories, offering 13 victims settlements over the last couple of years.

The science is firm that traumatic events can cause memory loss, and that these memories may resurface years or decades later. But when it comes to the court of law, this phenomenon can be difficult to prove, and it's still largely determined on a case-by-case basis.

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