Shanley trial underscores complexities of sex-abuse cases

The priest has had many accusers, but now only one whose case is in court - complicating a high-profile drama.

Opening statements in the trial of Paul Shanley are set to begin Monday - advancing an epic in which a popular long-haired priest of the 1960s has become one of the biggest pariahs in today's clergy sexual-abuse scandal.

Defrocked by the Vatican last year, Mr. Shanley is one of few clergy accused of molestation to actually face prosecution. He is charged with child rape and indecent assault and battery while a priest at a nearby Newton parish in the 1980s. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Yet despite his notoriety among victims' advocates - child-abuse accusations date back to at least 1967 - a conviction is far from certain. Though four men originally accused him of molestation, prosecutors dropped two of them from the case in July, and a third was dropped last week after failing to appear for scheduled meetings. Now, the trial is based on the allegations of a lone accuser.

That could weaken the case against Shanley, say experts. It also underscores the challenges and complexities surrounding the prosecution of child abuse, especially when trials take place decades after the alleged crimes. At worst, say some, the way this case has played out - especially if Shanley is acquitted - could deter future victims from stepping forward.

"[The sole accuser] is all alone. That's got to feel rough," says Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis and an expert on the clergy sex-abuse scandal. "I guarantee if he knew he'd be alone in the beginning ... he wouldn't be here. There's got to be some anger and resentment connected to that."

To victims' advocates, Shanley is infamous for his cunning and malice. They say he preyed on young victims repeatedly. And according to church documents released after the scandal broke in 2002, he was transferred from parish to parish over several decades.

"Shanley is both a symbol, and a real threat," says David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Accusations and hurdles in court

To begin with, the case in the Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Mass., revolved around the allegations of four men who had taken religious education classes at St. Jean the Evangelist Parish in Newton. They claimed that Shanley raped them in the rectory, the confessional, and the restroom from 1979 to 1989, according to the district attorney's office.

The last accuser to remain in the case and testify - known in court as Male No. 3 - alleges that Shanley raped and assaulted him from the time he was 6 years old until he was 11.

Most of the clergy who have faced civil suits from accusers have eluded prosecution - because the statutes of limitations have often run out. Shanley's case is an exception: Because he left Massachusetts with its 15-year statute of limitations in 1990, the "clock stopped." He was arrested in San Diego in 2002. He later pleaded not guilty and was held on bail.

Those seeking accountability in the Catholic Church abuse scandal face other hurdles beyond statutes of limitations. Testimony in such cases has often been based on recovered memory - an intensifying sense of past trauma, dawning on a victim years after supposed abuse - which can be controversial in court for juries and defense attorneys alike.

In the current case, Male No. 3, now in his 20s, says he recalled the abuse after the scandal broke in the Archdiocese of Boston three years ago.

"I have a great difficulty accepting recovered memory," says Joseph Oteri, a Boston-area defense attorney who is not involved in the case. "A lot of [memory] is stories people hear over the years. They hear stories and pretty soon think it happened to them."

Schoener says that juries, too, are often sympathetic to offenders in old cases "to the degree that anything is fuzzy."

The case's fallout for other victims

Many of Shanley's accusers have received financial settlements from the Boston Catholic Archdiocese. Some experts say an acquittal in the criminal case could prompt more victims to come forward, angering them enough to make their cases public, even if they had previously decided not to do so.

But Clohessy says the reverse is also true: If a conviction isn't a sure thing for a priest considered by many to be one of the worst villains, they may ask, how will lesser-known figures be held accountable?

"Whenever a dangerous predator escapes prosecution it makes already very pessimistic and hopeless victims feel worse," says Clohessy. "But that's even more true in a case like Shanley's where there are multiple accusers, and most importantly, a clear, lengthy, incriminating set of written records proving that church leaders knew he was dangerous."

For David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, Shanley's behavior should have sent warning signals to the church.

"He's emblematic of the fact that the church did not take the actions it should have taken," says Dr. Finkelhor. Shanley was known for blurring the boundaries between adults and children and has been accused of publicly advocating sex between men and boys. "Maybe that means the failure to pick up on what was going on was more egregious."

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