Pervert Priests

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Prominent in the shameful child abuse scandal that has humiliated U.S. Catholic bishops are several priests who spent significant parts of their careers working with troubled youth. Igniting the current exposé was a defrocked Boston priest, John Geoghan, who was convicted of fondling a 10-year-old boy in the Waltham Boys & Girls Club swimming pool.

Now attention has shifted to the alleged serial molesting career of 70-year-old Paul Shanley, who spent much of the ’70s in charge of the Boston Archdiocese’s “ministry to alienated youth.” Thanks to reporting by The New York Times and the Boston Globe here is some of what we know:

Beginning in 1967, Shanley was the subject of 26 complaints to church authorities about his conduct with children. Nevertheless, by 1971 Shanley (then a celebrity “street priest”) had established a retreat for youth workers in Weston, Vt. Like other clergy of all faiths, Shanley was not required to undergo a criminal background check, nor were church officials required to notify civil authorities when they received allegations of child abuse.

At no time, reveal some 800 pages of records released as the result of a lawsuit, did church officials seek to keep Shanley away from children or express concern for the welfare of dozens of boys he is accused of abusing. In 1979 Shanley is reported to have been a speaker at the founding conference of, shall we say, a youth-focused organization: The North American Man-Boy Love Association, a mysterious group that does double duty as a favorite whipping boy in the titillating national direct-mail campaigns of conservative children and family groups.

There was “a cult around Father Shanley,” recalls Joe Leavey, himself a former seminarian. Until 1976 Leavey was the Massachusetts commissioner of youth services and has since been president of a multi-service youth agency, Communities for People. Shanley, says Leavey, “was someone who came in and globalized the situation” of runaways flocking to Boston Common. Shanley was constantly charging that “no one else” was helping runaway and homeless youth. He did “a disservice to other programs” and “a terrible disservice to those kids.” Leavey says Shanley would “pick the weak,” but not to help them. “He was in there as a predator.”

In short, Shanley was a knock-off of New York’s Father Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House. But the late Ritter had superior public relations skills and direct-mail marketing savvy. Even today the international agency brings in about $100 million in donations every year.

After his street priest phase, Shanley allegedly spent the ’80s molesting his way through several Boston-area parishes. In 1991, one priest wrote in an internal memo, “It is clear to me that Paul Shanley is a sick person.” No matter. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law foisted Shanley off to San Bernardino, Calif., where his duties included running youth retreats. Law wrote Shanley in 1996 to thank him for his “impressive record.” Most of Shanley’s time in Southern California was spent as the owner/manager of Cabana Club Resort, a hotel that caters to gays in Palm Springs.

Shanley’s next hunting ground was Leo House in New York City, a guest home for visiting clergy and students. A complaint from a nun about Shanley’s behavior blocked his permanent appointment to that post. Until recently, Shanley was living in San Diego across the street from the Florence Child Development Center and serving as a member of the Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol sponsored by the police department. Shanley’s whereabouts now are unknown.

It did not take much in the way of divining talent to see this scandal coming. And thanks to another pillar of American life, the Boy Scouts of America, one part of the solution is also clear. From 1984 through 1992, the Irving, Texas-based Boy Scouts were sued at least 60 times by the families of children abused by Scout leaders, and more lawsuits are working through the courts today. The settlements and judgments during that time alone totaled at least $16 million.

Facing catastrophic financial losses and a pummeling by the media, the BSA instituted some reforms: It urged background checks of volunteers, weaved educational material about sexual abuse into its materials for youths and leaders, and declared that there be at least two adults on all Scout trips. Many (although not the Supreme Court or Congress) think that, if anything, the Scouts went too far in zealously purging avowed gays from the organization for simply being gay – not for illegal sexual behavior towards boys from its adult ranks.

Leading the loyal opposition to the embattled Cardinal Law is Mary Jo Bane, a U.S assistant secretary for children and families from 1993 to 1996, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.