February 09, 2005

After Shanley

Boston Phoenix

THE CONVICTION and imprisonment of defrocked priest Paul Shanley brings a four-year saga to a symbolic close. Shanley, at one time a street-level priest admired for his work with runaways, had become the public face of the Catholic Church’s child-sexual-abuse scandal, accused of repeatedly taking advantage of children who had been entrusted to his care. As such, the verdict in Middlesex Superior Court this past Monday — finding him guilty of raping and fondling a Sunday-school student some 20 years ago — was anticlimactic, especially given the now-27-year-old victim’s reluctant testimony, based in part on the controversial notion of recovered memory.

But the sad truth is that this story never should have been about Shanley, the late ex-priest John Geoghan, and other rapists in Roman collars. Because the real story was always about the people in power — from the late Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, who privately mocked Shanley’s blackmail threats against the Boston archdiocese even while continuing to give him new assignments, to Bernard Cardinal Law, who resigned his position as archbishop in 2002 after the extent to which he had coddled Shanley and others became known.

The legal case against the perpetrators was never as strong, as compelling, or as important as the moral case against their protectors. It is the Catholic Church’s shameful legacy — in Boston, across the nation, and worldwide — that the worst of its priests were simply shifted about from place to place, free to continue ruining young lives for years, even decades. That’s an important fact to keep in mind now that the shock of the past four years is finally beginning to fade.

The truth about pedophile priests would never have come to light were it not for the courage of the victims and the willingness of the news media to stand up to a powerful institution. Although sex abuse within the Church had been an off-and-on scandal since the 1980s, the hierarchy itself hadn’t been implicated until March 2001, when the Boston Phoenix — in a groundbreaking series of articles by Kristen Lombardi — reported on Cardinal Law’s possible role in covering up Geoghan’s crimes. (An archive of the Phoenix’s reporting on this subject is online at www.bostonphoenix.com/pages/cardinal.asp.) Then, in 2002, the Boston Globe began its massive, relentless investigation into the hierarchy’s role in enabling abusive priests. It was the Globe that first detailed the sordid career of Paul Shanley. Within months, Law was gone.

Posted by kshaw at February 9, 2005 10:02 PM