Jury Hints View Shift Regarding the Clergy
By Kevin Cullen
February 9, 2005
Eleven years ago, the Rev. Paul Manning walked out of Middlesex Superior Court a free man, surrounded by cheering parishioners after a jury acquitted him of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy, even though the star witness against him was another priest.
On Monday, in that same court, another jury convicted defrocked priest Paul R. Shanley of raping a boy in the 1980s, marking what some legal practitioners say is a cultural sea change in the way juries weigh accusations of sexual abuse against clergy.
Monday's verdict, prosecutors say, shows that the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, which began unfolding in Boston this time three years ago, has eroded the deference once shown priests, and that the playing field for the accusers and the accused has become level.
"What has changed is that people understand that priests sometimes do these things," said Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, the prosecutor in the Manning case and whose office prosecuted Shanley.
Retired judge Robert A. Barton, who presided over Manning's trial in 1994, noted that there are key differences between the prosecutions of Manning and Shanley, principal among them is the fact that the alleged victim in the Manning case recanted his story and did not testify.
But Barton, who followed the Shanley trial through news accounts, said he was surprised at the guilty verdict, because there seemed to be little to corroborate the victim's allegations.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the playing field has completely changed in the last 11 years," Barton said. "If this case had been tried 11 years ago, Shanley would have walked."
Barton said widespread publicity about clergy sexual abuse over the last three years has made it harder for a priest accused of such crimes to get a fair trial.
"The ordinary, decent priest doesn't have the presumption of innocence anymore," he said.
But prosecutors and many people who say they were sexually abused by Shanley say he was anything but ordinary and decent. They say he used his street ministry to prey on vulnerable young people for sexual gratification and used his position as a priest at St. Jean church in Newton to abuse a boy from Sunday school.
Unlike the jurors in the Manning case, who did not hear from his alleged victim, jurors in the Shanley trial listened to his victim recount, sometimes through tears, the trauma visited upon him.
The two cases do have other substantive differences. Eileen Donoghue, Manning's lawyer, said she was flooded with character witnesses who testified on behalf of her client, among them an FBI agent who had been an altar boy for him, a professional football player, and a police officer.
"I was not at a loss for character witnesses, all of whom said that the allegations against Father Manning were completely out of character. I think that's a major difference in the two cases," Donoghue said.
Shanley's lawyer, Frank Mondano, did not call character witnesses; he did not return a phone call yesterday afternoon seeking comment. But when Coakley brought charges against Manning, attitudes were much different. Manning accused her of prosecuting him for political gain.
The mother of Coakley's best friend even suggested that she would go to hell for accusing a priest of such vile things.
At Manning's arraignment, more than 100 parishioners from his Woburn church showed up in court to support him. Dozens of his supporters came to the courtroom each day of the trial, something the judge noticed.
"That makes a difference," Barton said. "When you see 30, 40 people show up, day after day, you figure the defendant must have some good in him."
In contrast, Shanley's corner was a sparse one. He had a niece there and Paul Shannon, a friend who mounted a quixotic letter-writing campaign to various newspapers.
Shanley became a poster boy in 2002 for the failings of the Boston Archdiocese in dealing with priests suspected of sexual abuse. His victim, 27, came forward after reading about complaints against Shanley in the Globe.
Prosecutors were not allowed to introduce evidence suggesting Shanley had been accused by others, but Barton and Donoghue said it would be virtually impossible to find a juror in Greater Boston who had not heard his name.
"You can't help but be affected by all that publicity," Barton said.
David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agreed that attitudes have changed, but he said they hadn't changed enough.
"Survivors are more courageous, police and prosecutors are more creative and determined, and judges and juries are more open-minded," he said.
But if juries are more willing to convict, he added, many potential jurors are still the products of a culture where authority figures, especially priests, are afforded deference not shown to others.
"It's ludicrous to suggest that in a couple of short years those deeply held concepts have been turned on their heads," Clohessy said.
Donoghue said she fears attitudes have shifted too far.
"I think there's a presumption of guilt, particularly if the defendant is a priest," she said.
But Coakley said that wasn't the case.
"The risk now is that some people will say it's open season on priests," she said. "But I don't think it is."
Despite his acquittal, Manning was removed from ministry by the archdiocese, and his accuser, Rev. Paul Sughrue, was promoted. Despite the attitude changes, Donoghue said Manning would be acquitted again today.
"But," she added, "it would be an uphill climb today."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.