Paul Shanley Preached Here

19Apr07

For many years, his name was preceded by the title “Father” or “Reverend.” Then the Catholic Church stripped those titles away as he became known by a different title: alleged child rapist.

Finally, we can drop “alleged,” substitute “convicted,” and we now have the name by which he will henceforth always be known: Convicted Child Rapist Paul Shanley.

Perhaps some don’t realize how close to Wakefield, Massachusetts this case is. Shanley began his now well-documented reign of terror as a parish priest at St. Patrick’s Church in neighboring Stoneham in the early ‘60s. The young priest had a special rapport with youth, and soon became known for his work with young Catholics. Even then, his ministry reached beyond Stoneham, as he spoke to youth groups at other area churches, including Wakefield.

Even then, there were complaints of abuse that reached the then chief of the Stoneham Police, according to published reports. Chief Vacon confronted both Shanley and the pastor of St. Patrick’s. Shanley denied it, and the pastor believed Shanley. The chief felt helpless.
St. Patrick Church
I remember Father Shanley coming to speak to assembled youth and parents in the old church hall in the basement of Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Wakefield in the mid-Sixties. I would have been in my early to mid-teens. I recall almost no specifics of what Father Shanley said in his speech that day, but I must have been impressed.

After his talk I walked up to him, shook his hand, and thanked him for what he had said. For me, an awkwardly shy adolescent, to approach any adult in that way was completely out of character. Maybe the fact that I was a perennial star CCD student, and he was a priest, gave me just enough courage to approach him.
Most Blessed Sacrament Church
I relate that story because it illustrates the power of the highly charismatic Father Shanley to draw people in and influence them, like a latter-day Rasputin. Your parents might not understand you, but Father Shanley did. He was on your side. You could talk to Father Shanley. You could walk right up to him.

I think it also relates to the way that memory works, a central issue in Shanley’s trial. Why do I remember next to nothing of what Shanley said that day, yet I remember being sufficiently impressed by his words to act counter to my normal behavior and approach him?

I remember one more detail about my one and only encounter with Paul Shanley. His response to my telling him that I admired him always struck me as a little odd, and I think that’s why I’ve remembered it all these years. In light of more recent revelations, it seems positively eerie.

When I told him I admired him, Father Shanley said, “Oh, you do, do you?”

A strange thing to say, I thought, but assumed at the time that he was just being modest. But in retrospect I wonder – did his cryptic words really mean, “If you only knew…”?

People have long known about Paul Shanley. The Archdiocese of Boston paid out huge sums of money to settle civil cases brought by Shanley’s many victims. Rome defrocked him. Despite evidence that he openly advocated sex between men and boys, Paul Shanley would have us believe that he never engaged in such behavior himself. He would have us believe that all the accusations of all the victims are made up. Paul Shanley denies all and remains unrepentant.

In the opinions of many, Paul Shanley is the worst of the worst. At least James Porter exhibited remorse, even if his tears were more for himself than for his victims. Even John Geoghan did not exhibit the cold defiance of Paul Shanley.

It was a classic Shanley touch that, in the immediate aftermath of his conviction, he rushed out of the courtroom ahead of the bailiffs, so that the victims present wouldn’t see him being handcuffed in open court. After all the damage that he has done, he wouldn’t even let them have that much.

Another notorious priest in the church sex scandal, John Geoghan, was sent to prison following his conviction. He was killed a few months later by another inmate. It seems that murderers take a dim view of child molesters.

I pray that Paul Shanley does not meet a similar fate. I think it’s a shame that Shanley got to live 74 years as a free man. I wish him longevity. I want him to rot in prison for as many years as possible. And although I stopped believing in hell a long time ago, I would be willing to re-instate it if I could believe that hell is where Paul Shanley will spend eternity.

Finally, there is one more thing that I recall Father Paul Shanley saying that day in the 1960s when he spoke at Most Blessed Sacrament. It was in response to a question from a parent in the audience who wanted to know what could be done about the rising marijuana problem. I remember Shanley’s answer because it provoked a shocked response in the adults, as was undoubtedly his intention.

His response went something like this: “If you’re just now worrying about pot,” Shanley said, “you’re already too late.”

I guess we’ll have to give the devil his due on that one.

[This column originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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