Justice, victims not served by defrocked priest's conviction

By Robin Washington
Duluth News Tribune
February 9, 2005

If there's anyone who thinks the conviction of defrocked Boston priest Paul Shanley on child rape charges Monday is a cause for great celebration, take a look at the evidence. And that means all the evidence, which unfortunately, the jury never got the chance to see.

In one of the highest-profile cases in the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal -- and because of statute of limitation laws, one of only a handful to go to trial -- the former priest was convicted of repeatedly yanking a Sunday-schooler out of classes and raping him during the 1980s.

Actually, that's the latest version of the criminal case, which began three years ago when four young men who had been classmates at a Newton, Mass., parish filed criminal charges against Shanley. At least two of their cases hinged on repressed memories, which the accusers said flooded back to them after they saw a newspaper article naming Shanley as the alleged abuser of teens and young adults who had sought out the priest for counseling.

Before anyone goes there, know that repressed memories can indeed be real, as proved by Frank Fitzpatrick, a Massachusetts man who after recalling the horror he endured as a child scoured the country until he tracked down in Minnesota the former priest who eventually admitted raping dozens of kids. Remember James Porter?

But though countless civil suits have resulted from the Porter case, it didn't start with a lawyer calling up Fitzpatrick and grilling him until memories of rape popped up -- a highly unethical if not completely illegal tactic by an attorney.

At the very least, as documented in the accuser's own handwriting, the complainant in the Shanley case was in contact with the lawyer who would later represent him in a $500,000 civil settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston on the same claims -- before the alleged victim claims to have remembered the abuse.

In a copy of the accuser's personal journal obtained by the News Tribune, he writes: "(01 Feb 02) Memo to (lawyer's name) attorney confidential communication. First heard of allegations on Shanley... thought 'Now that's weird, he was such a nice guy. I never would've thought he'd do something like that.' "

In two subsequent entries, on Feb. 8 and 9, the accuser writes of remembering the priest pulling him out of class, but says "Still no memory."

Yet on Feb. 11, it did come, he writes, stating "Heard (a classmate) was coming out.... Tidal wave!" with detailed recollections of being naked in front of the priest, physical contact, and "the 3 of us being brought to separate rooms... the bathroom most of the time, sometimes to the rectory, sometimes to the confession room."

In the roller coaster ride of the church scandal since then that saw a cardinal deposed, hundreds of abusive priests exposed nationally and countless victims telling through tears undeniable tales of sexual terrorism, two of the classmates mentioned in the journal and two others struck settlements with the church. The cases were handled by the lawyer also mentioned in the journal, and the attorney assisted the young men in filing criminal charges against Shanley.

But one by one, the three others were dropped from the criminal case, leaving the lone accuser to take the stand.

There, he acknowledged his entries in the journal, as well as a written statement about him by his therapist, stating "Feb. 12. Need... to return to Boston to meet with lawyer to pursue a class action settlement against the Archdiocese of Boston."

Yet in their deliberations, jury members had to rely on their own recollections because the journal -- and its distinct implication that the accuser had spoken with the lawyer before regaining his memory -- was never entered into evidence. Chalk that up as a lucky break for the prosecution and gross stupidity for the defense, made especially meaningful when the jury broke from its deliberations Monday to ask the judge for the journal and was denied.

On top of that, defense attorney Frank Mondano certainly didn't make the wisest choice in calling as his only witness Elizabeth Loftus, an expert who junkets around the country on a crusade to debunk repressed memories. Want to blow her out of the water? Just call Frank Fitzpatrick.

None of this is to say that Shanley is a great guy or that he never abused anyone, though some of his most vocal alleged victims acknowledge they were of legal age at the time the charismatic priest took advantage of them. That doesn't make it right, and Shanley himself acknowledges never taking his celibacy vows the least bit seriously, though he somehow justifies his promiscuity by saying: "I never had sex with a child. I never forced anyone into sex." That peculiar defense depends largely on Shanley's vague definition of "child," which may include those beyond puberty but younger than the age of consent. If so, his "never forced anyone" contention goes out the window and he very well belongs behind bars.

But not for a crime he didn't commit, or at least one for which there is reasonable doubt that the journal clearly raises. Not if our legal system is worth anything. And not if the hundreds of genuine victims of abuse, whom I have gotten to know, cry and even laugh with over years of covering this tragedy, are to celebrate any real victory.

That's one that would result in true justice, which didn't happen in Massachusetts on Monday.

ROBIN WASHINGTON, the News Tribune's editorial page editor, covered the Shanley case and church abuse scandal for the Boston Herald for two years.


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