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Father Shanley

From NAMBLA Bulletin 25-1.

A priest friend of Shanley's, still at his parish post and not accused, said, 

"I remember one summer all the hippie runaways headed for Boston. There were so many overdoses, so many tragedies for all these young teens. And Paul was there for them -- he saved at least a hundred young lives that summer."

When the Greek philosopher Socrates was convicted of corrupting the morals of the youth of Athens, the court asked him what he thought his punishment should be. He responded that he should get a small stipend from the state to continue teaching. He received poison instead. Now it is Fr Paul Shanley's turn - for his efforts on behalf of a neglected segment of society and for his challenging the orthodoxy of church and state and for the unforgivable sin of being the symbol of something the crowd dislikes this now frail old man will probably receive a harsh sentence. He deserves far better.

Fr Shanley was ordained in 1960 and became well known as a "street priest" over the next two decades. He established a ministry for runaways, drug abusers, drifters and teen-agers struggling with sexual identity.

A priest friend of Shanley's, still at his parish post and not accused, said, 

"I remember one summer all the hippie runaways headed for Boston. There were so many overdoses, so many tragedies for all these young teens. And Paul was there for them-- he saved at least a hundred young lives that summer." 

(Saving lives seems to have been a pattern for him - shortly before he was sent back to Massachusetts he saved the life of a neighbor.)

Shanley was well-known at the time for espousing gay rights from inside the church, beginning in the late 1960s, as well as for working openly with prostitutes, addicts, and other "alienated youth." He was one of the earliest priests to support and say mass for the Catholic organization, Dignity. He refused to stay quiet even after he was censured and moved from his urban ministry by then Cardinal Medeiros in 1979. The Boston Globe ran countless stories about him back then as a human rights champion.

It is no wonder that many higher-ups in the church hierarchy disapproved of Fr Shanley for his beliefs about homosexuality just as it was no wonder that many higher-ups in the Catholic hierarchy disapproved of and denounced the activist priests in Central and South America who embraced Liberation Theology - both challenged entrenched dogma and sought to give power and a voice to the previously powerless and voiceless.

It has been widely but incorrectly reported that Fr Shanley attended the meeting which created NAMBLA. He attended one of a series of public fora of the Boston/Boise Committee which were held to counter an anti-gay witch-hunt fomented to help the incumbent DA win re-election. Others who attended one or more of these meetings were Gore Vidal and Chief Justice Bonin of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. NAMBLA was formed at a separate meeting after these fora were over. [*1] Fr Shanley was not at this meeting.

Paul Shanley was, according to all who knew him and according to his own public statements, a lover of adolescent boys and young men - ranging from early teens to early twenties. He has admitted sexual relations with such young men, all of which he insists (and the evidence is clear that he is honest) were consensual. He also regrets these because he was not true to his vow of celibacy. It is clear from the evidence, however, that he was NEVER attracted to male children below puberty. The "victim" in this case claims that the "rapes" were when he was between 6 and 9 years old. This is patently ridiculous. The "abuse" didn't happen.

In order to bring this case to trial, so many decades after the incidents allegedly occurred, the prosecution had to base it's case on "recovered memory syndrome," [*] which has been repeatedly shown to be notoriously unreliable at best. Study after study has shown how malleable the memory can be and how easy it is to create false memories.

[* See Overview about lost and false memories.]

The prosecution asked what Paul Busa, the sole remaining accuser in this case (three others were dropped for credibility problems), had to gain by testifying. After all, he had already received a settlement from the church in a civil suit. Why continue to dredge up something that may have happened decades ago? One answer is that he gets to be a victim.

Victimhood has become our society's Holy Grail - attain it and all your culpability, all your responsibility, all your sins are washed away. Victims are too often showered with media attention and, what is worse, given a free pass on any and all shortcomings. It gives failure, lack of effort, and even criminality a tacit stamp of approval.

Victimhood has become not a problem to be solved but an identity to be nurtured. It performs the same role as religion - it can help explain and order a world which all too often seems inexplicable and chaotic.

One thing is clear: as in similar moral panics involving day-care centers, school teachers, and the Boy Scouts, the most lasting damage may well be the end of affectionate care, touching, and individual relationship with children by adults. What priest or teacher or other care-giver would dare be left alone with a child, or be seen caressing a child who has fallen? No more hugging, no more late-night counseling, no more one-on-one confidences, no more field trips.

It is sad that the jury was caught up in the hysteria surrounding this case. Fr Shanley wasn't convicted because of his acts, but because he became a scapegoat representing all the sins of all the priests. If any person can be convicted on such flimsy - nonexistent - evidence, then no one is safe.


[*1] For a more comprehensive account, read John Mitzel's book, The Boston Sex Scandal (Boston: Glad Day Books, 1980). [Back]

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