Expert witnesses are commonly called by both the prosecution and defense to testify concerning accusations that a defendant sexually assaulted a child. Defense experts usually explain why children are susceptible to influence that may cause them to believe that false accusations of sexual assault are actually true. Prosecution witnesses include medical experts who testify that certain injuries are consistent with sexual abuse, as well as experts in child psychology who explain why children delay reporting incidents of sexual abuse.
A federal prosecutor in a Pennsylvania trial wants to have an expert explain why children might make truthful accusations of abuse and later recant them. The defense unsuccessfully objected that the expert, who has never interviewed the alleged victims, should not be allowed to testify.
Allegations in the Maurizio prosecution
Although sex offenses are typically state crimes rather than federal offenses, Rev. Joseph Maurizio, a former priest at Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish in Central City, Pennsylvania, has been charged with eight federal crimes concerning the alleged abuse of children in Central America. The crimes include traveling to a foreign country to engage in illicit sexual contact with a minor, possession of child pornography, and transporting money out of the country for an illegal purpose.
Father Maurizio allegedly had illicit contact with minors over a ten year period during his visits to orphanages in several Central American countries. The indictment focuses on a six year period during which Father Maurizio visited an orphanage in Honduras. Alleged victims reportedly told Homeland Security agents that Father Maurizio had sexual contact with minors, offered them money or candy for sexual favors, and attempted to take nude photographs of them. Father Maurizio was relieved of his duties in September 2014, after federal agents seized computers and electronic storage devices from his parish home and chapel.
The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome controversy
The prosecution proposes to call a clinical psychologist, Veronique Valliere, as an expert witness. Although federal procedural rules require the nature of proposed expert testimony to be disclosed in advance of trial, there is some dispute as to exactly what Valliere will say if she testifies.
According to the defense, Valliere is expected to testify about the Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS). That controversial syndrome, developed to account for the behaviors of sexually abused children, purports to explain why abuse victims delay reporting or fail to report incidents of sexual abuse and why they retract truthful accusations.
Critics of CSAAS argue that the syndrome is meaningless because it suggests that reporting, failing to report, and denying sexual abuse are all evidence of sexual abuse. Critics suggest that CSAAS ignores the possibility that a child delayed reporting abuse, denied abuse, or recanted a past allegation of abuse because the abuse never happened. Advocates of CSAAS, on the other hand, argue that the syndrome provides a scientifically valid explanation of the behaviors of child sexual assault victims.
Court decisions concerning the admissibility of CSAAS have been mixed. Whether they apply the Frye or the Daubert standard for the admissibility of expert testimony, most courts have guardedly permitted experts to base testimony about the reaction of children to sexual abuse on CSAAS research, at least when the defense relies upon delayed reporting or recantation to attack the accuser’s credibility. Courts generally conclude that the testimony is helpful since most jurors do not have firsthand experience upon which to base judgments about how children react to sexual abuse.
At the same time, courts generally hold that experts cannot themselves assess the credibility of alleged abuse victims, since that assessment can only be made by a jury. Some courts instruct jurors that testimony about CSAAS is being admitted solely to show that a victim’s recantations are not necessarily inconsistent with having been molested, not as proof that the recantation is truthful.
A minority of courts have concluded that CSAAS is not generally accepted by the scientific community and that CSAAS is therefore inadmissible, or that that testimony based on CSAAS creates an unacceptable risk that jurors will view the expert testimony as evidence that abuse actually occurred. As the Iowa Court of Appeals noted, there is “a very thin line” between an admissible expert opinion that helps a jury evaluate a child’s testimony and an inadmissible expert opinion that the jury will take as substantive proof of a defendant’s guilt.
The prosecution’s response
The prosecution in Father Maurizio’s case wants Valliere to testify in its case-and-chief, not as a rebuttal witness to rehabilitate any child witnesses who recant. The defense argued that the prosecution’s tactic amounts to using CSAAS evidence as proof of the defendant’s guilt.
The prosecution denies that Valliere will testify about CSAAS. The defense suggested that Valliere will rely on CSAAS even if she does not identify the syndrome by name. The defense also argued that Valliere has never interviewed the children and that no studies have validated CSAAS in children from Honduras, who may (for cultural reasons) respond to sexual abuse in ways that differ from American children.
The court denied a defense motion to exclude Valliere’s expert testimony. Father Maurizio’s trial is scheduled to begin in September. It is expected to last three weeks. The defense may decide to call its own expert to counter Valliere’s testimony.