Sex abuse in the Catholic Church:

The curious case of Paul Richard Shanley

posted by Kent Brintnall

In the discursive regime of sexual abuse, the operative silence is the victim’s. This silence stems from shame and intimidation. The speech that would overcome it is courageous, a precious gift that provides access to truth. This account of silence assumes a theory of power as repressive: abusers—who have power—silence their victims by exercising power over them; victims reclaim power through speech. As Michel Foucault reminds us, when critiquing such unidirectional conceptions of power and such optimistic assessments of speech, “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” I want to consider—briefly and provisionally—the silences operating in the public discourse concerning Paul Richard Shanley. I am particularly interested in how “sex abuse” discourses intertwine with and occlude “gay” discourses. Or, to state it more forcefully, I want to use Shanley’s case to suggest that any account of religion or gay politics in America that fails to provide a rich, nuanced description of both is an inadequate examination of either.

Born in 1931 to a working-class family in Dorchester, Shanley is one of the most notorious abusive priests from the Boston archdiocese. His case garnered national media attention. In February 2005, after being summarily laicized, he was found guilty of raping a member of his parish, beginning when the boy was six and ending when the boy was eleven. Shanley appealed, challenging the prosecution’s reliance on “recovered” memories; the state supreme court affirmed his 12-15 year sentence. Roderick MacLeish, a civil attorney, claims that at least 30 people contacted him claiming abuse by Shanley. The archdiocese settled several of these claims, some in excess of one million dollars. According to affidavits and news accounts, Shanley’s abusive behavior began in 1961, the year after he was ordained, and continued until the early 1990s. His victims ranged in age from 6 to 21, with most being 14 or older. With one exception, they were male. Accounts contain allegations of oral and anal sex; many include claims of physical coercion or spiritual manipulation. There is substantial evidence that church officials and local police knew about these allegations. In 1994, Shanley admitted to having had sex with four adolescent males.

Ordained in 1960, the year Kennedy was elected, Shanley’s first decade of parish ministry coincided with the heady, turbulent time of Vatican II, the civil-rights movement and school-busing controversies, the anti-War movement, and the sexual revolution. By the late 60s, Shanley had developed a well-regarded ministry to Boston’s massive homeless youth population. In 1970, Cardinal Cushing affirmed this ministry as Shanley’s primary assignment. By 1972, Shanley operated the city’s first mobile VD clinic. And by the end of the decade, he had helped build a residential facility for gay youth and their families and a retreat center for others engaged in urban ministry.

As Shanley’s ministry shifted to focus on sexually alienated young people, he also began to challenge the church’s teachings on homosexuality and birth control. He did this through popular live and taped lectures, as well as a widely circulated newsletter. He traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to fight the repeal of a gay-rights ordinance at the height of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaigns. In both the mainstream and gay press, Shanley was celebrated as a charismatic, hardworking, radical priest. Although Cardinal Humberto Sousa Medeiros, Archbishop of Boston, initially approved this work, after complaints from members of the diocese and pressure from the Vatican, he assigned Shanley to a pastorate in St. John’s parish in Newton, where the events that led to Shanley’s conviction transpired.

Shanley’s previous celebrity would likely have been sufficient to generate notoriety when accusations surfaced, but the sensationalism was magnified by the fact that many of the allegations were leveled by men who had participated in his ministry to homeless and gay youth. They claimed that Shanley made them recount their sexual exploits, look at pornography, strip naked, masturbate, perform oral sex, or be anally penetrated. Some accounts leave open the question of whether a teenager can meaningfully consent in such circumstances; others explicitly state that Shanley physically coerced or spiritually threatened his charges.

One incident from Shanley’s advocacy days received enormous attention in later news stories. In December 1978, Shanley was one of three clergy members who attended a meeting of approximately 150 men and boys, held in a church basement, to consider the legal, psychological, moral, and social issues related to man-boy love. A separate caucus, which did not include Shanley, met the following day to found the National Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA. Many commentators collapsed these events and identified Shanley as a co-founder of NAMBLA, an organization dedicated to repealing all age-of-consent laws. According to a contemporaneous press account, Shanley told those gathered about “a boy…rejected by his family.”

When his parents found out about [his] relationship [with an older man], [they had] the man…arrested…. “It was only a brief and passing thing, as far as the sex was concerned, but the love was deep and the gratitude to the man was deep, and when [the boy] realized that the indiscretion…had cost this man perhaps 20 years…[he fell] apart.” Shanley concluded, “We have our convictions upside down if we are truly concerned with boys…the ‘cure’ does far more damage.”

It would, of course, be equally plausible to describe this relationship as exploitative rather than edifying, and to characterize the boy’s “love” as identification with an abuser. At the same time, we must remember that Shanley’s mutual interrogation of the condemnation of homosexuality and man-boy love was fully consonant with gay liberationist discourse in 1978. This gathering, in fact, had been organized in response to a massive police sting, in which 24 men were indicted for their sexual involvement with teenage boys. Understood as Boston’s Stonewall, these arrests galvanized the city’s gay community. The protests eventually cost the Revere district attorney his job. Efforts to end police harassment and brutality were endorsed by the local homophile chapter, the Libertarian Party, the ACLU, Dignity, and the Metropolitan Community Church. Two organizations came into being as a result: NAMBLA and the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which recently secured same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts.

This dual genesis, and its Ishmael-Isaac legacy, must be part of any adequate account of American gay politics. Although contemporary LGBT activists are quick to distinguish homosexuality and pedophilia, in the years immediately after Stonewall, broad and general challenges to state involvement in citizens’ sexual lives were more common. Given the number of sexually active young people in urban areas who were coming out, these challenges were raised by many who had not achieved the age of majority. The press account quoted above includes statements by two teenage boys; 2002 coverage of Shanley’s case includes statements by adult gay men who had sex with older men as teenagers without overt coercion or subsequent regret.

This admixture is also evinced by criticism of Shanley. Summarizing a talk by Shanley that “disturbed [her] greatly,” Wilma Higgs reported the following “outlandish statements”: homosexuality is not a sin or illness, but a gift from God; it is immoral to try and change a person’s sexual orientation; “homosexuality,” as we understand it, was not known until about 100 years ago, and, therefore, the Bible has nothing to say about it; when adults and children have sex, children are the seducers; children may regret causing an adult to go to jail, knowing they are the responsible ones.

Since Higgs considered these statements to be “so blatantly untrue…[and] misleading,” she challenged Shanley during the lecture and wrote to Cardinal Law after. According to Dolores Stevens, after making similar statements about homosexuality, and claiming that gay people were not angry enough about their treatment by society, Shanley then “spoke of pedophilia (which [he characterized as] a non-coerced…manipulation of sex organs…between an adult and child). He stated that the adult is not the seducer—…and…the kid is not traumatized by the act per se…, [but by] the police…‘drag[ging]’ the kid in for questioning.” When confronted with Stevens’s letter, Shanley stated that she had misunderstood him, which is certainly possible—and plausible.

Let me be clear: sexual relationships between adults and teenagers, especially between those with institutional authority (teachers, therapists, priests) and those over whom they have authority, are rife with the possibility of subtle—and egregious—forms of coercion, abuses of power, and violations of trust. They may be so fraught with damaging possibilities that we must insist on bright-line rules, even though we know such prohibitions are, in the final analysis, over-broad. But when assessing what transpired between Shanley and his accusers, when telling the tale of a closeted priest who went to seminary at the height of the McCarthy era and then developed a successful youth ministry at the height of the sexual revolution in a social and religious context where homosexuality was being both celebrated and vilified, we must exercise a finely tuned sensitivity to contextual detail.

Accounts of Shanley’s abuse include reports that he told young men that homosexuality was not a sin and that having sex with either men or women was okay. While these statements are usually presented as a sexual predator’s sinister machinations, some auditors surely experienced a sense of relief and hope hearing these pronouncements. Given that press accounts claim Shanley had a reputation for cavorting with a different young man every night, mustn’t we pause over the relatively small number who came forward to complain? Given that Shanley is routinely characterized as “perverted” and “disgusting,” that the hotel he purchased with another priest in Palm Springs was described as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” that accounts of Shanley’s—and the church’s—degeneracy appear on blogs entitled “The Rise of Sodom” and “Book of Gomorrah 2,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility that he might have received strong moral condemnation from some quarters even if he had never touched an under-age boy?

A July 2002 cover story on Shanley from The Advocate—a glossy, mainstream gay magazine with a national circulation—bears the headline “Paul Shanley’s compassion was just part of a scheme to abuse vulnerable boys and young men.” The story tells of William McLean, who met Shanley in 1973, when he was a 20-year-old college junior, by responding to an ad in the Boston Phoenix that read, “Gay? Bi? Confused? Need someone to talk to?” Although McLean found Shanley’s willingness to have sex confusing, given the priestly vow of celibacy, he found his time with Shanley “incredibly helpful,” and observed that Shanley was the first person to tell him it was okay to be gay. While he found the sex enjoyable, McLean expresses regret that his first experience was with an older man who was a priest. Although McLean makes no allegation of physical coercion, was of age when he met Shanley, and was not a member of Shanley’s parish, I wonder whether a similar kind of retrospective regret might not color victims recollections of, and claims against, Shanley. For example, John Harris, who currently characterizes Shanley’s acts as rape, met Shanley when he was 21, quite confused about what it might mean to be gay. Harris’s tale of confusion, pain, shame—and even physical pain accompanying the sex act—is similar to many coming-out stories. Like many of Shanley’s accusers, McLean and Harris maintained contact with Shanley over several years, often reinitiating the relationship. In her Vanity Fair piece, Maureen Orth reports that “Harris is on permanent disability and has undergone shock treatments.” She fails to note, however, that electroshock therapy was a common “treatment” for homosexuality throughout the 70s. She implies that Harris’s debilitation rests solely on Shanley’s shoulders, not at the doorstep of larger institutions. In Orth’s gothic tale, the church is negligent and uncaring, but never homophobic.

I am not suggesting that Harris was not raped or that he misremembers what happened to him. I am also not suggesting that Shanley’s actions did not cause Harris—and many other men—psychological damage. But I am suggesting that coming to grips with a gay identity is an incredibly difficult process. In fact, coming to grips with one’s sexuality, regardless of its content and character, is a difficult process. And this process was undoubtedly even more difficult during the period in which most of Shanley’s “abusive” actions allegedly took place, given the kind of discourses—and silences—that encircled (homo)sexuality in the 1970s. I am also suggesting that the editors and authors of national magazines, especially those that cater to gay audiences, in the 2000s should understand such matters.

I would like to find a way to speak about Shanley as both a sexually abusive priest worthy of disdain and a pioneering voice for gay rights worthy of admiration. I would also like to develop a sufficiently broad understanding of social context and an adequately nuanced account of individual motivation to explain the Catholic sex abuse cases, their causes, their meaning, their effects, their remedy. Most importantly, however, I want a history of homosexuality and Christianity in America that can place Shanley—and the Catholic sex abuse cases generally—squarely in the center. Because, in the final analysis, to understand these cases—or homosexuality, or Christianity—we must keep in mind the complex embroilment of Christianity, homosexuality, power, desire, and human frailty, as well as the on-going contest between radical queer voices and palatable gay visions.

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