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Ex-Priest's Trial Begins On Child Rape, Assault

Conviction May Be Difficult, Legal Experts Say

By Jonathan Finer - Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005

BOSTON -- In the hierarchy of those considered arch-villains of this city's clergy sexual abuse scandal, victims' advocates say Paul R. Shanley, whose trial begins Tuesday, ranks near the top alongside fellow defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, who was killed in prison in 2003.

A charismatic street preacher who received acclaim for his ministry to gay teenagers and disadvantaged youths in the 1970s, Shanley has been accused in civil lawsuits of molesting dozens of children -- many of whom have received financial settlements from Boston's Catholic archdiocese in recent years -- and of publicly advocating sex between men and boys.

Shanley, who faces criminal charges of child rape and indecent assault and battery, is one of the few priests to be indicted from the abuse crisis that was exposed three years ago. Criminal statutes of limitations have prevented the prosecution of all but a few priests in Boston, because many of the abuse allegations concern events that took place decades ago.

A few of Shanley's accusers were able to overcome such restrictions because of a technicality: The priest left Massachusetts for California more than a decade ago, a move that by law stops the countdown for the statute to expire.

"He represents the worst of the worst," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He preyed on many victims over many years, and threatened the church to stay quiet about it."

Internal church documents released three years ago show that when then-Cardinal Humberto Medeiros reassigned Shanley to a suburban Boston parish in 1979 because of his behavior, the priest said he would release to the news media information on other priests that "you would have to fire . . . since what they are saying is far more shocking than my poor offerings."

But a conviction may not come easily. Shanley, 73, was originally accused by four men who said he assaulted them while he was serving as the pastor of St. Jean's parish in Newton, Mass., a suburb west of Boston. But in recent weeks, prosecutors have dropped two of the alleged victims from the case amid concerns about presenting the most convincing case possible to a jury.

They are widely expected to drop a third man, who failed to show up for some pretrial hearings last week.

"I think it'll be a very difficult case for the prosecution," said J.W. Carney Jr., a defense attorney in Boston who once worked as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, where the case will be tried. "The strength of the case was the multitude of people who came forward to corroborate each other's stories. A rope with four strands, rather than one, is exponentially stronger."

Prosecutors have sought to preserve the remaining man's anonymity, even though his name was widely reported when he was involved in a now-settled civil case.

"He is the only one left," Assistant District Attorney Lynn Rooney said. "It is really too big a burden to place on one young man."

Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Stephen Neel ruled that the man's image cannot be shown on camera, and news organizations have stopped printing his name in stories.

The case is even more tenuous, according to several former prosecutors and defense attorneys with no ties to the proceedings, because the remaining alleged victim's testimony will rely on repressed, or recovered, memories, which some psychologists and psychiatrists assert are prone to inaccuracy.

Now in his twenties, the man has said that his recollection of the abuse he suffered came surging back soon after the scandal broke in 2002.

Shanley's attorney, Frank Mondano, did not return telephone calls seeking comment in recent days. In an interview in April, he expressed skepticism about the validity of recovered memories, and in court last week, he argued that the timing of the alleged victim's decision to come forward suggested a play for financial gain.

"As the evidence currently stands, an argument can be made that a lawyer was retained before the memories were recovered," Mondano said, in court.

Shanley's legal team has contacted Elizabeth F. Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine and one of the nation's leading critics of the use of recovered memories in court cases, for possible testimony as an expert witness.

"When the number of abuse cases started to spike in the 1980s and 1990s, you saw a slew of litigation based on these memories. Then you saw some of the so-called victims suing therapists or others whose suggestions helped plant these ideas in their heads," Loftus said in a telephone interview. "I've got serious questions about whether people should be convicted based on that type of testimony."

Many who treat abuse victims argue that recovered memories are a credible and verifiable phenomenon.

"Nobody questions these things when it is a Holocaust survivor or Vietnam War veteran whose memories come back, but somehow abuse victims generate all this skepticism," said Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a clinical psychologist who has treated more than 70 victims in her New York practice.

Legal experts say the fact that the alleged victim's civil case against Shanley was settled before the criminal trial also works against the prosecution because it provides testimony for the defense to parse.

An acquittal, victims' advocates say, would be devastating. "If Shanley walks, it will cause already deeply wounded victims, who mustered the strength to come forward, to feel hopeless," Clohessy said.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests