'If they knew the madness in me'
By Sally Jacobs
It was getting on toward midnight, a night during Holy Week in 1972, and Paul Shanley was somewhere on Route 78, heading for Harrisburg, Pa., the next stop on a rambling speaking tour around the country. He was looking for a place to sleep - and wrestling with his own inner torment.
"I am overwhelmed with loneliness, ashamed at my pleas to God to find a way out for me," Shanley would later write, transcribing his thoughts for "Notes from the Road," his newsletter. "Is it really so important for me to go on? The Letters say so. They warn: 'If you give up, so must we. You are our hope.' People shouldn't put such hope in a mere man, any man. It's almost sacrilegious. If they knew the madness in me, festering below the surface, they would join the ranks of my accusers."
At the time he wrote those words, there were already several accusers, young boys who had privately declared that Father Paul had abused them. But they were far outnumbered by the letter-writers, the legions of homosexual runaways and their parents who considered Shanley a hero and his work a kind of blessing.
Though it is difficult to recall in the face of headlines that now proclaim him a "predator" and "pedophile," Shanley, as he rose to prominence in the 1970s, was not just a legendary "street priest" in blue jeans, but a vaunted crusader for the down and out, a man widely admired in Boston.
Barry T. Hynes, the former Boston city clerk and the son of former Boston M ayor John B. Hynes, went to him for midlife guidance, he recalled, "because I admired his life." Representative Barney Frank, then a state legislator active in gay-rights issues, attended legislative meetings with him. One of only a handful of priests in the country assigned to work full time with homosexuals, Shanley charmed not only the media and city leaders, but clerical and youth workers throughout New England. They studied Shanley's taped essays on "Counseling Parents of Gays" and "Changing Norms of Sexuality" as if they were scripture.
And to the lost and disconnected youth of the city, Shanley was a Pied Piper, a priest like no other. He had his wavy black hair carefully sculpted at a Back Bay salon. He smoked Kool cigarettes and could often be found at popular gay bars such as the Eagle and the Ramrod. He trumpeted his message from the altar at Saturday midnight M asses for students and whispered prayers over the corpses of runaways and addicts. He touted himself as a "sexual expert" to those who sought his counsel and advertised his counseling services in the alternative press under the words "GAY, BI, CONFUSED?" He did not like parents, neither their watchful eyes nor their smug heterosexuality. And when his green Chevy station wagon turned down Columbus Avenue, headed for a shelter for runaways, the boys came running.
"Paul Shanley, if he weren't a damned pervert, would be my hero," said Carmen L. Durso, a lawyer representing several of Shanley's alleged victims. "He said all the right things."
That Shanley, now 71, was accused of molesting some of the boys who turned to him for help is now well known. Harder to divine is what church leaders knew or suspected of his behavior. And even more disconcerting, particularly for some of his alleged victims, is the fact that so many prominent Bostonians admired and supported Shanley's work and yet were seemingly unaware of his flagrant sexual activities. Shanley's penchant for young boys was no secret, at least not in some quarters of the city, and the word among street veterans was to steer clear of him.
Shanley, now in the Middlesex County jail awaiting trial on rape charges, was unavailable for comment. His lawyer, Frank Mondano, did not return repeated telephone calls.
So daunting was Shanley's celebrity that some of those who followed his career and had suspicions about him didn't know where to go with their concerns. Boston, after all, was among the most Catholic of cities. Nor was the gay community, struggling to emerge from a shroud of secrecy and condemnation, particularly eager to have one of its most vocal champions linked to sexual abuse.
One exception was Elaine Noble, the first openly gay state representative in the country, who knew Shanley well in the 1970s. She said she was suspicious of his activities and complained to a host of city leaders, including the police and mayor's office. That nothing came of her reports she attributes in part to Shanley's popularity and potent connections. Another factor, she says, was the nature of the victims themselves.
"People didn't care about them," said Noble, who now lives in Florida. "They were disposable children. No one cared about gay people, let alone gay children who had run away from home."
Reaching out to the forgotten
One of Shanley's many dreams was to write a book about himself, a book he planned to title "The New Niggers' Priest." A boy had once observed to him that hippies and the kind of social renegades he ministered to had become the "new niggers." Shanley liked that. Over the years, he wrote and distributed a newsletter - rambling, often irreverent, sometimes self-congratulatory, always signed "Father Paul" - that he hoped to develop into a book. One section, which was apparently written in 1972 and was among the hundreds of pages of church documents released this spring, was titled, "My Route."
"I'd leave Warwick House in Roxbury around 6 or 7 PM and drive through the Combat Zone, Scollay Square's successor, watching for new kids who mistakenly thought that was where the action was. It wasn't ... I would park and hit all these areas and the popular eating places. A quick walk through Greyhound, Trailways, around the three "meat racks" picking up the younger kids who were only seeking money for food. I tried to keep to a schedule. At each place usually "old" kids who had been a few years in Boston would be waiting with the day's disasters; the latest crop of runaways; who has OD'd; who was busted; what chick is spreading VD ... In my last few weeks on the street, I would get 30 cases in the first 30 minutes. No social worker that I know gets that intake in a week, let alone of that urgency. And then they have referral agencies."
At the time, Shanley had worked as a street priest for two years, assigned by the Boston Archdiocese to minister to alienated youth. Before that, he had spent years working with castoffs and addicts both from his parish in Braintree and while serving as chaplain at the former Boston State College. His unconventional ministry was initially endorsed by former Cardinal Richard Cushing, and when Cardinal Humberto Medeiros succeeded Cushing in 1970, Shanley's request to focus on "sexual minorities" was approved. For some devout Catholics, the notion of such a ministry seemed at odds with church teachings. Although the church does not condemn the homosexual individual, it does prohibit homosexual sex. Ministries such as Shanley's were part of the church's effort to reach out to a broader community but were not an endorsement of homosexuality.
Shanley, who bristled with self-confidence, took it a quantum step fu rther. Not only did he preach that being a homosexual or bisexual was OK, he advocated fervently for gay rights from the lectern and in the media. He chided the Catholic Church for what he considered homophobia and testified at the State House on behalf of antidiscrimination legislation. He raised money to establish a long dreamed-of retreat for homosexuals and their families called Exodus Center, which existed briefly on Brush Hill Road in Milton, Ma., in 1976. And he aggressively marketed his counseling tapes, promising in promotional literature, "You'll be challenged to re-evaluate almost every attitude and value you have held up to now about human sexuality, even your own. Do you accept?" If some Catholics were disturbed by his escalating advocacy, and they were, others working on the street flocked to the squat red brick building known as Warwick House, the Roxbury church residence to which Shanley was assigned in 1969, just to listen to him. And there are many who still admire what he did.
"Paul Shanley was a man we all looked up to," declared Boston City Clerk Rosaria Salerno, a former nun who was assigned by the Boston Archdiocese to work on several college campuses in the 1970s. "He was dedicated to young people, and he allowed them room to question. I felt he was doing something important that not all of us could run around doing. He may have done horrific evil, but he also did a lot of good."
Sister Barbara Whelan, executive director of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a refuge for runaway youths, says Shanley was the inspiration for her life's work. "I would not be here doing what I am doing today if it were not for Paul Shanley," Whelan said. "He is the person who really educated myself and a lot of others."
Among them was William McLean, who was a 20-year-old Bridgewater State College junior when he responded to one of Shanley's ads. He wound up having sex with Shanley half a dozen times in 1974 and remembers hearing him say the words he had been waiting all his life to hear. "He was the first person I ever talked to who told me it was OK to be gay," said McLean, now 48 and living in San Diego. "I agreed with him 100 percent, and I have thought he was right all my life."
Confidence and conflict
By the early 1970s, Shanley had become so linked to the issue of gay youth that "he was the go-to guy if your child was homosexual," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents almost half of the 26 alleged Shanley victims who have taken legal action. "Paul Shanley would be the referral from the hot lines, from the newspaper, from the street. He was so brazen in those early years. He was really at his zenith in the 1970s."
Lightly supervised by the church, freed of tedious parish duties, Shanley was a one-man ministry. He walked the city's streets at all hours, keenly attuned to the rhyth ms of those who called them home and trailed at times by those who knew he held the key to a meal and bed. His routine varied often, particularly as his public speaking and traveling schedule picked up in the later part of the decade. He toured the youth hangouts, Boston Common, and bus stations. He held M asses for Dignity, an association of gay Catholics. And for a short time he rented an elegant Beacon Street apartment in the Back Bay that, one of his accusers said, was a regular gathering spot for teenage boys, "and right in the middle of them Shanley would sit enthroned, sort of holding court."
Shanley reveled in his moment. In his newsletter and notes, he oozed confidence, waxed paternalistic about his "kids," and mocked others. Bemoaning the difficulty of securing a place to say Mass after his college services were shut down, Shanley wrote: "To be sure, I could have done my Clark Kent thing, donned clericals and stolen off to suburbia for my own spiritual nourishment. But my kids couldn't. So I wouldn't."
Shanley was also strident and self-congratulatory in his communications with church leaders. In one stinging letter to Cardinal Medeiros, he wrote, "That I am a Pied Piper leading youth astray has been an oft-alleged and mean-minded judging of my motives which deserves no reply." And in a letter to Monsignor Francis J. Sexton rebutting a 1967 accusation that he had molested three boys, Shanley declared, "I am ... filled with rage and determined to fight and to make an example of this type of behavior to which we priests are subject, in a civil court case."
That Shanley, as evidenced in some of his writings, also brooded about his accusers and was tortured by some demons of self-doubt was not something he often shared. Those who were closest to him, such as family members or the Rev. John J. White, with whom he lived, are not talking. And among those who followed his doings in Boston, Shanley was regarded as supremely sure of himself and his cause.
No one was more taken with the fiery, witty priest than the media. He was, after all, a Dorchester boy, one whose father had owned a bowling alley and whose mother was a legal secretary. He had been raised in a working-class parish where becoming a priest ranked among the most admired achievements. Shanley worked as a linotypist and spent two years at Boston University before deciding he wanted to become a priest.
Ordained in 1960, he quickly cropped up in the news pages. Boston Globe accounts from the time describe him as "prodding the conscience of the Priests' Senate" and preparing Thanksgiving dinners for homeless youths. In one 1970 story, Shanley predicted a massive summer flood of runaway teens. "In Boston, it's a race between me and the predatory adults - the pushers, the pimps, the prostitutes, the hustlers, the addicts."
Portraits of suffering
But if the public and press were largely blind to Shanley's ways, the boys he allegedly made his victims were definitely not. They are men, now, their childhoods long behind them. But their encounters with Shanley have stained their lives like scarlet ink. Many have suffered from prolonged addictions and recurring depression. Some have been unable to form lasting relationships and have tried to take their own lives.
One of them, now a 47-year-old builder and father of three who asked that his name not be used, says he met Shanley when he was 13 and had run from his South Shore home to the Boston "scene." He recalls Shanley telling him that he was a psychologist who specialized in teen issues. And when the priest offered the boy a place to stay, he says he agreed, and Shanley took him to his third-floor bedroom at Warwick House. He says Shanley had the maid take his dirty clothes and offered him a robe. When it came time for bed, he recalled, "[Shanley] said, 'You can sleep with me.' I was thinking this is not a good idea. And then all of a sudden he is naked and touching me, and I am petrified ... I was completely freaked out."
Another boy, now age 43, was introduced to Shanley in 1974 at age 15 and told that the priest could help him with his many family problems. At Shanley's suggestion, he says, the two played strip poker and then stood naked before a mirror in his Beacon Street apartment. For about a month, he says, he continued to visit Shanley, who told him he was "an expert in sexuality," for weekly "sessions" during which they had sex. One day Shanley asked the boy if he would like to have sex with other men. "I said, 'I don't know,"' said the man, who lives in Boston and filed a civil lawsuit against Shanley in April. "He said, 'Well, I think you should, because part of being a man is having a lot of sexual experiences."'
Throughout the 1970s, Shanley allegedly took young men to a number of his residences, including the elegant Back Bay townhouse with its black French doors, a Vermont retreat called "Rivendell," and an apartment in Milton. For a time, he also took them to a rustic cabin deep in the Canton woods. It is a squat brown structure with small front and back porches, enveloped in the breeze that blows off Ponkapoag Pond. It was here that Shanley is said to have brought Arthur Austin, then a 20-year-old distraught over a breakup with his first gay lover, in 1968, and to have given Austin "access to his body." "[Shanley said,] 'It is better for you to come to me for this than it is to be down on your knees in some dirty alley for a stranger.' And I was so grateful," said Austin. "I was going to be saved. Saved by a priest."
In that small cabin, Austin, now 54, says he was molested by Shanley time and again. Some nights, when Shanley was done with him, he would make Austin walk down the dirt road in the dark to scout for police while Shanley drove his station wagon silently behind him, its lights off. Although Shanley told Austin the cabin had been "given to him by an old man," it has long been part of the Ponkapoag Outdoor Center, run by the YMCA, which has owned the building since it was built in the 1950s. Today, the cabin once used by Shanley is the arts and crafts building. On its front door and the adjacent wall, children have pressed their paint-covered hands, leaving a swath of small blue and white handprints, like a flurry of butterfly wings.
Shanley's alleged victims had a lot in common, according to several of their lawyers. They were lonely. Depressed. Terrified of their sexuality. Some came from single-parent homes and had few friends. A few had never had sex before.
Carmen Durso, the attorney who represents several of Shanley's alleged victims, says Shanley's choices were no accident. Shanley, he said, "went out and created a pool of kids he could go after. He advertised for them. He went after the kids at the bus stops, the runaways, the kids who nobody cared about and who had no one to talk to. Shanley was very instinctive about his victims, like finding the weakest member of the herd."
Some noticed the pattern early on. Randall Lee Gibson, the former minister of the Charles Street Meeting House on Beacon Hill, which ran an outreach program for gay youths in the 1970s and was a popular gay meeting place, says he often noticed Shanley with young men. He says he knew Shanley was a supporter of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which advocated sex between men and boys, because "I asked him," said Gibson, now 75 and retired in Orange. "He said, 'Yes, I am aware of it, and I support that activity.' It came to me as kind of a shock that he was as active as he was."
Gibson, whose Unitarian Universalist church closed its doors in 1978, says he did not inform authorities because he didn't know enough about Shanley's beliefs or behavior. But Noble, the former legislator, says she did. Noble, who was also a highly visible gay figure in the 1970s, said that not only was it " common knowledge in the community that Paul liked young men," but a number of young boys she knew told her about it in detail. She was also suspicious of what she saw. One day in 1978, Noble says, she was riding in an elevator in a downtown apartment building when Shanley came on the elevator with a young boy, both of them apparently fresh out of the shower. She later said to Shanley, "You know, Paul, I'm surprised the cardinal hasn't done something about you. And he said, 'No one can touch me.' And he was right."
Noble says she took her concerns about Shanley to the Boston police; to Katharine Kane, then a deputy mayor; and to several priests who are now dead. Kane, now retired, said she "never heard of Shanley until now." And when leaders in the gay community heard what Noble had done, she said, "I got holy hell. People in my own community just didn't want to believe it. The truth is that people were afraid of Shanley. ... No one could shut down Paul Shanley."
And Shanley gloried in it. Prophet, rescuer, visionary, he seemed to see himself as wielding great power in a universe of lesser mortals. And yet, running through some of his prose, there was also a sense of gathering gloom, a premonition of his own inevitable fall. In one of his newsletters, Shanley told of wrestling with a decision over what to do with a homeless girl he had found on the Boston Common.
"Do I leave her to be [abused] by a dirty old man on the Common, or take her [to a shelter] to be [abused] by a dirty young man? " Shanley wrote. "I sometimes chose the latter. Imagine? Much of my life these few years has been choosing not twixt good and evil but the lesser of two evils."
In the end, Shanley left the girl there. "Why did I leave her there? Because scandal-hungry adults were ever at my side waiting for me to do anything illegal. And then, the slam. And be assured, no righteous indignation from my colleagues. I'd rot."
This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 7/10/2002.
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