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The shame of Father Shanley: he appeared to be a pioneer for gay liberation in the 1970s, but it seems Father Paul Shanley's compassion was just part of a scheme to abuse vulnerable boys and young men. (Cover Story).

It's not often that the Roman Catholic Church finds common ground with the gay and lesbian community. But when it comes to Paul Shanley, the two antagonists find themselves in the same uncomfortable position. For more than three decades Shanley made his home in both worlds. During that time Shanley is said to have abused his position as a priest to have sex with prepubescent boys, troubled adolescents, and young men confused about their sexuality, all while presenting himself as an advocate of gay rights. Since the Catholic abuse scandal erupted at the beginning of this year, Shanley has emerged as perhaps the most notorious of the priests accused of sexual abuse.

"Shanley is a terrible person for what he's done to these people," says Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who is representing four men who say Shanley abused them. "I've been dealing with abuse cases for 20 years, and I think he's just about the worst of a bad bunch."

Shanley--who was indicted June 20 on 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault and battery and has been accused of raping boys as young as 6--has predictably become a flash point in the battle over gays in the clergy.

Conservative Catholics point to Shanley as an example of the dark underside of homosexuality. "The fact that most of his sexual relations were with adult men and not prepubescent boys demonstrates how ludicrous it is not to label him both a pedophile and a homosexual," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Gay activists are quick to point out that they too are repelled by the accusations against Shanley. "There certainly have been folks who have tried to make Shanley the [representative] icon of gay Catholicism and gays in the priesthood in the face of every evidence [to the contrary]," says Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, a gay Catholic group. "It wasn't Shanley [who] put the issue of homosexuality on the agenda [in the sex abuse scandal]. It was our cardinals and the Vatican."

Indeed, as hundreds of pages in documents released in Shanley's case indicate, the Catholic Church (in the form of the archdiocese of Boston, where Shanley was stationed) knew all too well just what Shanley was doing. Shanley's entire career as a priest appears littered with numerous allegations of sexual abuse and emotional manipulation. The first allegation against him dates to 1961.

The claims against Shanley often echo the charges that fervent opponents of gay rights like to level against gay men as a group: He is characterized as a sexual predator and pedophile who was promiscuous, hedonistic, and completely out of control and who abused his position of trust and authority to recruit troubled and confused youth into a destructive lifestyle.

Yet among Shanley's fiercest critics--and those who would have suffered the most because of what they say he did--are gay men and supporters of gay fights. "Paul Shanley didn't rape me because he was gay," says Arthur Austin, who alleges Shanley manipulated him during an emotionally fragile time in his early 20s to make him Shanley's sex slave. "He raped me because he was a sociopath who was encouraged and nurtured by the archdiocese of Boston. They let it happen."

On the surface at least, Shanley was a courageous and vocal advocate for gay rights at a time when few people, let alone priests, were willing to put themselves on the line. Ordained in 1960, Shanley, who is now 71, worked in parishes through the '60s until he started a street ministry for "sexual minorities" in 1970. In that position Shanley worked with homeless gay youth and runaways.

Dressed in jeans instead of clerical garb, he seemed the quintessence of the post-Vatican II liberal clergyman. "People have wild ideas about sexual minorities," Shanley said at the time. "They think they rape children, cause venereal disease. Dispelling myths is a full-time job." At the same time, Shanley became involved in Dignity, ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics. But a run-in with an increasingly hard-line Vatican led to Shanley' reassignment to parish work in 1979, although he still continued to counsel gay youth.

For many gay people at the time, Shanley was a hero. "He certainly was someone who was looked up to," Duddy says. "There are not a lot of folks from then who are still around, but my sense in talking to them is that they feel shock and betrayal that someone who was hailed for progressive and courageous thinking may have been involved in something so absolutely horrific."

Indeed, based on the allegations that have emerged this year, Shanley's public stance for gay rights seems to have been a mask for his sexual opportunism. "From the get-go with these kids he was engaging them in sex under the guise of `I want to help you understand your sexuality,'" Durso says. "What he clearly did was seek his own self-gratification."

In 1979, when John Harris was 21, he says he turned to Shanley for counseling in coming to terms with his sexual orientation. "I was very isolated," Harris says. "I had not come out as a gay man yet." At their very first meeting, Harris says, the counseling took an inappropriate turn, with Shanley suggesting they massage each other in order to help Harris relax around other men. "I was naive, so I agreed to do it," he says. "We stripped off our tops, and he turned off the lights except for a red light on the mantel." Then, Harris says, Shanley told him he wanted to have anal sex. "That didn't appeal to me, but he said it would be all right," Harris says, adding that when the experience became too painful for him, he told Shanley, "I don't think I can do this anymore." Shanley allegedly responded, "It's all right. I'm almost done." But as Harris remembers today, "It wasn't all right, and he wasn't almost done."

The aftermath was difficult for Harris, who has only recently come to describe the experience he had with Shanley as rape. "I remember thinking to myself, It's almost like going back into a closet again," he says. "I can't tell anyone." Confused and with no one to talk to, Harris says he returned to Shanley. This time, Harris says, Shanley showed him a few gay bars in Boston and "told me that's where gay men meet." Then, he says, they went to a local porn theater.

Harris says Shanley took him to one of the bathrooms in the theater, where a group of men were having sex. "He told me, `You have to be careful here because sometimes cops raid the place.'" Eventually, Harris says, Shanley recognized his discomfort, and the pair departed. "He said, `I know your type,'" Harris remembers. "`You want the suburban house and the picket fence.'"

Accounts from other accusers indicate that Shanley presented his "sexual aggression" as part of his pastoral response. Austin says that in 1968, when he was 20 and struggling to come to terms with his orientation, he sought help from Shanley. What Shanley offered instead, Austin says, was the option of having sex with him so that Austin wouldn't end up having sex in back alleys. "He told me, `I care what happens to you,'" Austin says. "He said, `I will allow you to have access to my body to ease your pain.'"

William McLean was 20 and a junior in college when he answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix in 1973. "It said, `Gay? Bi? Confused? Need someone to talk to?'" McLean recalls. "The ad hit where I was at the time." Knowing that he would be talking to a priest, McLean thought he would get a lecture in morality. Instead, he says, he met Shanley and was greeted by a sign above his desk that read, HOW DARE YOU PRESUME I'M HETEROSEXUAL.

"He was a smart guy," McLean says. "At the time he seemed very sophisticated, with-it. This was the beginning of gay liberation, and it was amazing to have tiffs coming from a priest."

McLean found his time with Shanley to be "incredibly helpful." But, like Austin and Harris, he says the counseling quickly turned into a sexual situation, during their second meeting. "I was asking him how I would know I'm gay if I'd never had sex," McLean says. "He said, `Well, you need to try it.' And finally he said, `We could try something here.'"

Taken aback, McLean asked how Shanley squared the offer with his vow of celibacy. "He said that the definition of celibacy involved sex with women and that he didn't have sex with women," McLean says. "At the time I thought, That's convenient, but then I thought, Maybe that's the church's definition."

McLean says he and Shanley ended up having sex on that occasion and again a year later, when McLean returned to Shanley for more counseling. "I remember after one time saying to myself, I want a boyfriend; I don't want to have sex with this older guy. He's a priest," McLean says.

While McLean says he enjoyed sex with Shanley, he adds, "in retrospect, part of me wishes I didn't have it. I would have gained a lot from just talking to him. And then I could have gone off on my own. I would rather he had not been the first person I had sex with." And McLean now sees the ad that led him to Shanley in a different light as well. "Maybe some 15-year-old kid answered the ad," he says.

At the same time that Shanley was establishing himself as a minister to gay youth, he spoke favorably in several forums about man-boy relationships. In a 1979 interview with a now-defunct gay publication, Gays Week, Shanley called into question the wisdom of age-of-consent laws, saying that opposition to relationships between boys and men was based on misplaced concerns. "We have our convictions upside down if we are truly concerned with boys," he said. "The `cure' does far more damage."

Indeed, Shanley's alleged connections to the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a group that questions age-of-consent laws and is a pariah to most gay activism, are among the most heated of all the controversies surrounding him. Shanley spoke about age-of-consent laws at a 1978 convention, from which some attendees later met to form NAMBLA.

Bill, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used, says that an older man in his neighborhood--who later became a NAMBLA leader--referred him to Shanley for counseling in 1974, when Bill was 15. Instead of counseling, however, the first session turned, at Shanley's suggestion, to strip poker and eventually sex, Bill says, adding that at one point the two of them stood naked, looking in a mirror. "He said, `You're a boy, and I'm a man. This is a beautiful thing,'" Bill recalls. "He said, `If I can help you with your homosexuality, let me know.'"

Bill says he continued to go to Shanley for counseling sessions that included sex. Meanwhile, he says, Shanley introduced him to a series of men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. "He said being a man meant having lots of sexual experience," Bill says. "When I would go back for another session, he would ask for a detailed account of the sex, and he would become excited and we would have sex again."

Bill says the relationship was halted when his mother found his journal with details of his visits to Shanley and called Humberto Medeiros, then the cardinal of Boston, who in turn called Shanley. When Bill next talked to Shanley, "He cried, `You ruined my life. I may be excommunicated,'" Bill says.

Bill says that after a four-month hiatus, he went to see Shanley again. "He was very cold," he says. "I didn't want to have sex with him, but I didn't want him to be angry with me." Nevertheless, Bill says, the two of them did have sex and continued to do so off and on for several years.

Bill says he later became an alcoholic--he claims Shanley took him to bars when he was underage and bought him drinks--and that around 1982 he sought Shanley out as part of his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery. He says that when he went to Shanley to share his fifth step in the program--telling someone your character defects--the two of them ended up talking so late that Shanley suggested he stay over, in a separate bedroom. "I woke up with his penis outside my mouth," Bill says. "I know it sounds naive, but that was the first time I felt completely used by him." Now, Bill says, he sees Shanley as a "monster." "He used me for his own desires," he says. "He set up scenarios where gay kids and young men would come to him for counseling."

The phone call from Bill's mother wasn't the only tip-off the church hierarchy had regarding Shanley's activities; they were well-aware of Shanley's statements about age-of-consent laws. Shanley himself was hardly shy about making his opinions known. Among the documents released this year was a 1972 diary entry the Boston archdiocese had in its possession. In it Shanley writes of his bouts with sexually transmitted disease: "[M]y name is to be found in the files of countless VD clinics across this fair land.... One of the first things I do in a new city is to sign up at the local clinics for help with my VD."

In 1990 Shanley took a medical leave from the priesthood and moved to Palm Springs, Calif. There his career took a startling turn: He and another priest, John White, owned the Cabana Club Resort, which catered to gay men. All the while he was receiving payments as a priest from the archdiocese.

By 1997 Shanley and his business partner had sold their interest in the resort. At the time of his arrest he was living quietly in San Diego and working as a volunteer for the San Diego police department. There are now at least 30 men who have come forward to say that they were abused by him in the past four decades.

In retrospect, Durso says, Shanley's behavior was more than a violation of trust; Durso adds that it ruined what could have been a courageous and helpful mission. Without the allegations of sexual abuse, Shanley would have been seen as a pioneer in the gay rights movement and an early advocate for gay youth.

"At the time he was it," Durso says. "There was nothing else. If he had done what he said he was doing, which was creating a bridge between the church and kids who realize they are gay, he would have been one of my heroes." Instead he resides in a jail in Cambridge, Mass., awaiting trial on the mounting sexual abuse charges against him.

Gallagher is coauthor of Perfect Enemies: The Religions Right, the Gay Movement, and the Politics of the 1990s.
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Article Details
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Author:Gallagher, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Jul 23, 2002
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