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No: Reasonable doubt ignored by jury tarnishes any victory

Knight Ridder Newspapers
February 14, 2005

(KRT) - When Paul Shanley is escorted out of the Cambridge, Mass., courtroom Tuesday after his sentencing for the serial rapes of a Sunday school student in the 1980s, he will be marching toward his death. Not that there's capital punishment in Massachusetts, but whatever term the 74-year-old defrocked priest gets will be de-facto equal to life.

If he's lucky. I have zero faith in the corrections system that allowed the prison murder of fellow molester ex-priest John Geoghan keeping the even more notorious Shanley alive.

And who'd miss him? After last week's verdict, untold others prevented by statute of limitations from ever telling a courtroom their tales of abuse at the hands of the charismatic priest shed tears of relief. For three years I have been indelibly touched by their horrific stories and can only grasp at a hint of their pain. But if Shanley's conviction is viewed by them as a victory, it's a hollow one.

Our legal system hinges on reasonable doubt, and it abounds in this case. Rather than in the courtroom, Shanley's real trial was held in a hotel ballroom three years earlier, where a lawyer playing judge, jury and executioner wowed a throng of journalists and live TV audience with a PowerPoint presentation of voluminous church files to deem the priest as the devil incarnate.

He was a founder of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, the lawyer suggested - except the papers actually showed no evidence of that. His appetite for little boys was so uncontrollable his ``pathology (was) beyond repair,'' the lawyer quoted a preeminent psychiatrist - except the doctor never met Shanley and was talking about his laziness, not abuse.

He was the subject of countless complaints by parishioners for statements about adults having sex with children - except they were complaining more vociferously about his preaching tolerance for gays. Don't think that dog-and-pony show had any impact on the jury three years later? Type ``NAMBLA'' and ``Shanley'' in Google and see what you get.

Shanley indeed did horrible acts, and his mantra ``I never had sex with a child, I never forced anyone into sex'' - is rendered ridiculous with his vague definition of ``child'' excluding those between puberty and the age of consent.

Those deeds remained unpunished when his criminal accuser - who'd already received $500,000 in a civil case handled by the ringmaster attorney - managed to tearfully navigate a sea of reasonable doubt. That includes whether the accuser spoke with his lawyer BEFORE recovering his memory of abuse, how an agreement with the law firm in Boston could be signed and dated the same day the accuser's memory returned in Colorado, and why the accuser's best pal with whom his memories were intertwined - and whose sworn statement had morphed from ``I repressed the abuse'' to ``I always remembered it but was afraid'' back to ``I repressed it'' - dropped out of the criminal case after receiving more than $1.4 million in a civil settlement. Yes, victims frequently forget details of long-ago trauma, but we're talking about depositions taken by a blue-chip lawyer three years ago, not 20.

Maybe Shanley did do it. And whether he did or not, his life or death behind bars for crimes for which there is a degree of doubt engenders about as much sympathy as Al Capone's trip upriver for tax evasion. But for all the pain and lies and betrayal victims have endured, those seeking healing will find little solace in a questionable verdict and another dead ex-priest.



Robin Washington is editorial-page editor of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune and covered the Shanley case for two years for the Boston Herald. He may be reached at [email protected]

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