Did Shanley Get Screwed?

When Paul Shanley went down last week in Boston, an editorial writer in Duluth put in a word on behalf of the defrocked priest and NPR ran a couple of reports questioning the reliability of recovered memories. That was pretty much it for media skepticism. Sexual perversion in the Catholic priesthood is a huge national story that’s run its course, and in Chicago and most other places the coverage of Shanley’s trial for serial child rape was a lot more dutiful than inquisitive. A strong argument can be made that Shanley’s trial was a travesty, but for the most part the press wasn’t in a mood to care.

“Our legal system hinges on reasonable doubt, and it abounds in this case,” wrote the exception, Robin Washington, editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune. Washington had covered the child-sexual-abuse scandal for two years for the Boston Herald, and the story still possesses him. As he told me, he couldn’t not write.

“Rather than in the courtroom,” his essay in the February 14 News Tribune continued, “Shanley’s real trial was held in a hotel ballroom three years earlier, where a lawyer playing judge, jury and executioner wowed a throng of journalists and live TV audience with a Power Point presentation of voluminous church files to deem the priest as the devil incarnate. He was the founder of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, the lawyer suggested–except the papers showed no evidence of that. His appetite for little boys was so uncontrollable his ‘pathology (was) beyond repair,’ the lawyer quoted a preeminent psychiatrist–except the doctor never met Shanley and was talking about his laziness, not abuse. He was the subject of countless complaints by parishioners for statements about adults having sex with children–except they were complaining more vociferously about his preaching tolerance for gays.”

The Boston Globe launched the sexual-abuse story three years ago. “Under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy,” it reported, “the Archdiocese of Boston in the last 10 years has quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests.” Shanley was the one who’d been a public figure. Go to the Globe’s elaborate Web site, “Abuse in the Catholic Church,” for more: “The Rev. Paul R. Shanley made his reputation as a Boston ‘street priest’ in the 1960s and 70s–a crusader for runaways and drifters, drug addicts, and teenagers struggling with questions about their sexual identity. But those who turned to Shanley for comfort and guidance often found themselves in the clutches of a sexual predator.”

Last April the archdiocese agreed to pay upwards of $2 million to settle high-profile civil suits filed by four of Shanley’s alleged victims. As boys, all had been students in a Bible class at Shanley’s church in Newton, Massachusetts. Represented by the same attorney that Washington derided the other day in Duluth, they told stories of being called out of class by Shanley and abused. The four were expected to repeat those stories at Shanley’s rape trial, but one by one they dropped away, their credibility in question, and in the end Shanley faced a single accuser–Paul Busa, a 27-year-old air force officer. Though Busa’s name had frequently appeared in the press, during the trial it vanished from print, on the ludicrous grounds that the media were protecting his identity.

In its trial coverage, the Globe discussed the pivotal issue of recovered memory in terms of defense strategy. Shanley’s lawyer “gambled that jurors wouldn’t believe that the priest’s accuser suddenly remembered sexual abuse from two decades earlier.” His only witness was an expert who testified that false memories “can be placed by psychotherapists in susceptible minds.” But the strategy didn’t work. Busa had wept as he testified, and a juror told the Globe that “the accuser’s emotional testimony struck him as ‘heartfelt.'”

The Globe editorial page wrote after the trial, “The case against Paul R. Shanley came down to the word of one person, a man who was forced to relive horrific childhood memories in front of strangers in a Middlesex Superior courtroom. That 12 of them, empaneled as a jury, found Shanley guilty of child rape is a tribute to the witness’s courage and credibility.”

But just as uncorroborated “childhood memories” aren’t necessarily “childhood experiences,” neither does “credibility” mean quite the same as “truthfulness.” The Globe editorial page certainly knows the difference. Among psychologists who specialize in the hazards of memory is a professor who can be found in a Harvard classroom a few blocks from the courthouse. One study Richard McNally was involved in asked volunteers who claimed to have been abducted by aliens to relive those “memories.” A memory doesn’t have to be authentic, McNally observed, to be overwhelming. And when events truly occur “that are indeed horrific,” he told me, “people seldom if ever become incapable of remembering them. That’s why you don’t have people forgetting the Holocaust.”

Busa said he was six when Shanley began to abuse him. That’s many years younger than the youths who’d allegedly had sexual encounters with Shanley back when he was a young street priest–beyond the statute of limitations. When Busa heard in 2002 that a Bible school classmate was suing the archdiocese over Shanley, he wrote in his journal, “Now that’s weird, he was such a nice guy. I never would’ve thought he’d do something like that.” A week later he wrote, “Still no memory.” Two more days later the memories came. “Tidal wave!” he wrote.

In the past two decades, the doctrine of recovered memory has washed across the American legal landscape. In the 1980s day care operators across the country were being convicted in sensational trials of the ritual sexual abuse of tots in their care. Jurors were admonished to “believe the children.” Another wave of accusations pitted women who’d “recovered” the memory of childhood rape against their own fathers. But eventually the tide began to ebb. Skeptical journalists noted the lack of physical evidence to support the children’s fantastic tales, which the kids never seemed to remember until attentive cops and therapists stepped in. Researchers documented the malleability of memory. Accused parents organized. Groups such as the National Center for Reason and Justice were formed, and imprisoned day care workers and broken families slowly came to be seen as victims of a spreading hysteria, driven by ideologues and crackpots, on the order of the Salem witch trials. But the waters have never completely settled; some of the accused remain behind bars, and the debate over recovered memory continues.

Shanley didn’t testify at his trial. The only defense witness was Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, who’s known nationally for her research into false memory. “What worries me, speaking generally about this case,” she says, “is that the public thinks that this is a corroborated repressed-memory case. They think corroboration comes in the form of those other accusations, documents that the Catholic Church knew it had problems with Paul Shanley, whatever. Let’s say hypothetically 40 years ago Paul Shanley had some relationships with teenagers. That doesn’t mean that a claim he abused me between the ages of 6 and 12 and I massively repressed it is corroborated. This case is a major setback for the progress we’ve made in the last two decades in questioning claims of recovered memory.”

Loftus told me she was shocked to find out in Boston that she was Shanley’s only witness. She almost didn’t testify herself–Shanley’s attorney felt so good about how his cross-examination had gone that he wasn’t sure he needed her. The defendant’s niece, Teresa Shanley, insisted: she said she paid Loftus to fly in from the west coast and she wanted her money’s worth.

Unlike McNally and Loftus, Robin Washington believes in recovered memory. But as a journalist in Boston he’d been offended by the sight of a “ringmaster” attorney manipulating his clients and the media. He wrote February 9 in the News Tribune, “Shanley himself acknowledges never taking his celibacy vows the least bit seriously, though he somehow justifies his promiscuity by saying: ‘I never had sex with a child. I never forced anyone into sex.’ That peculiar defense depends largely on Shanley’s vague definition of ‘child,’ which may include those beyond puberty but younger than the age of consent. If so, his ‘never forced anyone’ contention goes out the window and he very well belongs behind bars. But not for a crime he didn’t commit.”

Teresa Shanley told me the state offered her uncle a deal: two and a half years of house arrest if he’d plead guilty. That would keep the 74-year-old priest out of prison–no small thing: in 2003 another convicted priest, John Geoghan, was strangled in a Massachusetts prison by a fellow inmate who later said he did it “to save the children.”

Father Shanley turned down the offer. “He told me he couldn’t morally plead guilty to something he didn’t do, and he would rather take his chance in the courtroom,” said Teresa Shanley. “I don’t think he ever thought he was going to be convicted. He didn’t do it, he always maintained he didn’t do it. How could he be convicted if he didn’t do it?”

Father Shanley, I said to his niece, has been described even by sympathizers as an ephebophile–someone sexually attracted to adolescent boys. “I don’t believe he’s a pedophile,” she replied, “but I think he would probably agree with that statement.”

This Tuesday Shanley was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. The prosecutor took the occasion to read a statement from Busa, who said, “I want him to die in prison. I hope it is slow and painful.” But Washington thinks it’s more likely Shanley will die in prison like Father Geoghan did, suddenly and violently.

Scooped in Their Own Backyard

The Sun-Times’s Robert Feder reported on January 12 that Mary June Rose, program director of WGN radio, was resigning after more than eight years on the job. On February 1 Feder reported that Mark Krieschen, the same station’s vice president and general manager, was on “indefinite leave” and not expected back. Feder said “insiders” were telling him that Krieschen was believed to be in trouble “because of allegations made against him by Mary June Rose.”

This was a big story. In ratings and revenues, WGN is Chicago’s biggest radio station, yet its top two executives were on their way out the door. On February 8 Feder reported that the Tribune Company had launched “an urgent nationwide search” for a replacement for Krieschen, who’d resigned for so-called personal reasons. On February 15 he reported the sight of a help-wanted notice for Krieschen’s old job in the Tribune’s classified section. Noted Feder dryly, “It was the first time the Trib had mentioned any activity in WGN’s front office.”

True enough: the Tribune still hadn’t published a word. Not a word of the obvious business story, let alone of the juicy story-behind-the-story that WGN sources were stonewalling. Yet the Tribune and WGN belong to the same corporate family. WGN’s offices are a short elevator ride away from the Tribune newsroom.

I called Jim Kirk, who covered TV and radio news for the Tribune until he was promoted to business editor a few weeks ago. Kirk knew the paper looked bad.

“We haven’t sat on it,” he insisted. “It’s a story we’re going to cover. It’s a staffing issue.” Because nobody had taken over his beat the story slipped through a crack, Kirk said, and then the Tribune found itself so far behind Feder that it couldn’t bring itself to write anything at all until it knew enough to leapfrog him.

That’s how newspapers think. The problem in this case is that Tribune silence doesn’t look like surrender to the superior reporting of the competition. It looks like a Tribune Company cover-up.

News Bite

“The Chicago Park District awarded a 20-year lease to run the swanky restaurant at Millennium Park to a businessman who got a top Park District official pregnant during negotiations, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.” –Sun-Times, February 11.

Got her pregnant! How’d she let that happen?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mark Garfinkel-Pool/Getty Images, Kevin Moloney/Getty IMages.