Social Studies March 2005

If Paul Shanley Is a Monster, the State Didn't Prove It

The Shanley case should never have reached a jury without some corroborating evidence of a crime.

Gregory Ford was a troubled young man, but he had been normal until his teens. In 2002, when he was in his mid-20s, his parents learned of a Boston Globe article about a former priest who had allegedly preyed on teenage boys in the Boston area. "After reading the Globe article," writes JoAnn Wypijewski, in an impressive article in Legal Affairs, "Ford's father said, 'I knew from that moment on that I was going to have all the answers.' "

The ex-priest was named Paul Shanley. In a 2003 article in Forbes, Daniel Lyons continues the story: "As his parents tell it, in years of therapy Greg had tried, unsuccessfully, to recall being molested by anyone. When his parents showed him the Globe article, he didn't remember Shanley or recognize his photograph. The Fords persisted, showing Greg a snapshot from his first communion with Shanley. At last Greg collapsed, sobbing, and said that from age 6 to 11 he had been raped by the priest. Later he estimated this happened 80 times. He alleged that Shanley took him from his one-hour Sunday school class, raped him, then returned him to his classmates."

Last month, Paul Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison for child rape. Because Shanley was 74, this was effectively a life sentence. His accuser—not Ford but Paul Busa, a 27-year-old Boston-area firefighter who recounted a similar story—said in a victim-impact statement, "However he dies, I hope it's slow and painful." The city of Boston, outraged by priestly pedophilia scandals and clerical cover-ups, agreed.

"Shanley may well have seduced teenagers" during the years in the 1970s when he ministered to abandoned and stray adolescents (many of them homosexual) in Boston, writes Wypijewski. If so, that was an inexcusable and possibly criminal abuse of his position and his charges. But this article is not about Shanley's life or character, which will receive no defense here. It is about the burden of proof in a criminal trial, and whether the Shanley conviction met it.

After Gregory Ford said he had been raped, his parents hired a Boston lawyer named Roderick MacLeish Jr., who had represented (according to Wypijewski) more than 200 alleged victims of priestly pedophilia. MacLeish won large civil settlements for Ford and three other men who, after learning of Ford's claim, came forward with similar stories of abuse at Shanley's hands. One of those other claimants was Busa.

The criminal case looked shaky. Prosecutors eventually dropped Ford as an accuser. They also dropped another accuser, and a third stopped cooperating. That left only Busa, who said his own lost memories of abuse at Shanley's hands began flooding back after he heard about his classmate Ford's recovered memories.

Sexual abuse of minors is a real and grim problem in America. What sets the Shanley case apart, however, is that it relies on uncorroborated recovered memories. To judge from press accounts, the prosecution presented no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence, no stories of contemporaneous health or emotional problems, and no recollections of unusual activity or behavior at the time. Shanley's accusers said he had removed them from catechism class regularly, sometimes weekly, in order to abuse them, but the boys' teacher said she never sent anyone to visit Shanley and that he never took anyone from class. How could such depravity go unnoticed? In civil depositions, Ford (writes Wypijewski) "testified that he buried the memory of each attack, and thus approached each new encounter with the priest as if it were the first, without fear."

The theory underlying this claim is that of traumatic amnesia. The notion is that some experiences are so horrible that the mind pushes them down into the subconscious, where they can fester and cause all sorts of physical and emotional distress. Eventually, often under the guidance of a therapist or on being cued by some stimulus, the amnesiac brings the memories into awareness.

This theory has a checkered legal past. Recovered-memory cases alleging sexual abuse, sometimes by satanic cults, surged into the hundreds in the early 1990s. Many alleged victims were steered by insistent therapists, and in many cases the recovered memory itself was the only evidence of abuse. (One plaintiff said her evidence of having been sexually abused from age 2 to 11 was based on "just what's wrong with me today ... [and] I'm still afraid of spiders.")

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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