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March 2002 Email this to a friend
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Salem Redux
Moral panic rages on in Boston

Massachusetts is known for its witch hunts and sex panics, and little seems to have changed since the 17th century, except that pious pigeons have come home to roost: now it's the religious who are targeted and the secular critics who are the accusers.

The fury centers on the Boston Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church. The current witch hunters are the "liberal" Boston Globe editors and reporters. In the wake of a Globe expose, Cardinal Bernard Law has forwarded the names of at least 87 priests who are "suspected of sex with children" to police and prosecutors. The Globe has published names, photos and (usually unproved) tawdry details of the alleged sexual exploits of 34 priests as The Guide goes to press. The Globe has made no distinction among levels of charges or between those convicted and those who deny all charges. Rape is often cited as the accusation, when fondling or groping or oral sex at most are the actual allegations and no force is alleged.

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At least six of the priests have denied all charges and most of the others have never been criminally charged. They include several of the Boston area's most prominent priests, including pastors of two of the largest local suburban parishes. Several of the priests were active in social justice and some challenged reactionary Church policy on homosexuality, mandatory celibacy, abortion, and women priests. One local prosecutor claims that more than 100 of the Archdiocese's 600 active priests may be implicated.

More than half the cases involve charges of sex with older teenagers-- and even men in their 20s-- yet all have been branded with the devil's mark of "pedophile predators." The alleged acts took place between eight and 40 years ago. The statute of limitations for sex involving minors in Massachusetts is quirky. In some cases it is ten years, in some it is 15 years after the 18th birthday of the victim, and in all cases the clock stops running if the defendant leaves the state.

The current panic is a more virulent version of a crusade launched by the Globe in 1993 over the infamous "Father Porter" scandal, where one priest was accused of having had sex with hundreds of boys over many years. This time it was triggered by a scandal involving Father John Geoghan, accused by 129 men and one woman of having had sex with them as children. It is rumored that settlements in these cases have given these individuals scores of millions of dollars. One insurance company has said its coffers have run dry compensating church "victims." While the church is a multi-billion dollar enterprise and hardly needs to be pitied in terms of its poverty, it is equally obvious that such a rich vein demands to be mined by lawyers hanging around rectories tempting now aging ex-kids with hefty sums.

Father Geoghan has been found guilty of only one crime, and has been sentenced to five years in prison for having touched the bum of a ten-year-old boy in a public swimming pool 12 years ago, and there are two more criminal cases pending. In both of those he is accused in the press of "rape," with little notice that the rape consisted of masturbation in one case and "oral stimulation" (a blow job on the boy) in another. Ironically, although those cases went unprosecuted for more than 20 years (and several years after the "victims" in early adulthood made their first claims), the prosecutors are arguing that the statute of limitations does not apply because Father Geoghan was sent out of state for "treatment."

Last year, a preview was provided in the case of a local Catholic lay worker who allegedly jerked off altar boys in the church study, then baked their semen in brownies which he fed to his unsuspecting family. A Boston Herald columnist was livid when the man's wife and parents chuckled in the courtroom when this was revealed.

In all the cases, the Globe waxed most furious about church inaction. Back in 1993, Cardinal Law ordered a thorough cleaning out of all priests who had child-sex accusations against them, but insisted on handling the cases within the church, allowing the priests, after "treatment," to be retired, placed on sick leave, or given administrative work away from children. This is not enough for those who want to root out what they see as evil incarnate. The Globe, many prosecutors, and legislative leaders are pressing for legislation which would require the Church to forward to police all current or past complaints, or other evidence of "child abuse," back 50 years or more, including previously sacrosanct sacramental confessions. This time around, the Globe has called for the Cardinal's resignation, backing this up with a poll that claims 48 percent of all Catholics agree. Cardinal Law preached before an appreciative congregation at Boston's cathedral this week that "the church will not be run by public opinion polls" biased by weeks of one-sided publicity. He received a standing ovation.

What causes a moral panic? How long before it will burn itself out? Perhaps this is tragi-comic relief from the stresses of the war on terror. The whole scandal could be viewed as a just dessert for the Church, which has long oppressed homosexuals and kept many secrets under the cloak of its authoritarian hierarchy.

But meanwhile, scores of men who have done many great acts of kindness and worked for the common good, and whose worst acts may have been some affectionate dalliance with adolescents (or perhaps nothing at all), are vilified, demonized, and pilloried. As one leading priest, who asked not to be named but who is not accused, said "Mark my word, there will be suicides. I know many of these men. They are gentle souls, they have been excellent priests, and they have given their lives to service." Another priest told me, "These men considered the Church their family, and have not been prepared that Mother church would, in this last hour, desert them utterly. I know one priest who was given an hour to leave church property. I know another who, in his 70s, has lost even his health care, and is working at a McDonald's."

Father Paul Shanley is an example of one who has served both his church and the cause of gay liberation and who now seems abandoned by both. A priest friend of Shanley's, still at his parish post and not accused, said, "I remember one summer all the hippie runaways headed for Boston. There were so many overdoses, so many tragedies for all these young teens. And Paul was there for them-- he saved at least a hundred young lives that summer."

Shanley was infamous at the time for espousing gay rights from inside the church, beginning in the late 1960s, as well as for working openly with prostitutes, addicts, and other "alienated youth." He was one of the earliest priests to support and say mass for the Catholic organization, Dignity. He refused to stay quiet even after he was censored and moved from his urban ministry by then Cardinal Madeiros in 1979. The Boston Globe ran countless stories about him back then as a human rights champion.

The Globe story this year is an all-out hatchet job with the headline, "Famed 'Street Priest' Preyed upon Boys." (Many calls to Dignity and its members about this story were not returned.) The local gay press has been silent on this huge scandal-- despite its obvious homosexual nature and the impact it will have on gay men and boys.

The "victim" whose story was most detailed by the Globe is Albert Austin, now 53, who first met Stanley when he was 20. He began a relationship which lasted until he was 26. "I basically became Paul's sex slave. When he wanted me to service him, he'd call me up..." Another "victim" (not one of those who has sued the church) first met Paul Shanley at 16 (the Globe says 15, but the numbers don't add up), and continued a sexual affair with him until age 23. Such cases are lumped together as behavior of a "pedophile," despite the adult ages of the younger partners.

Implausible stories

One of the law suits settled for thousands of dollars was by the brother and sister of a deceased man, accusing Shanley of sex with a boy of about 11 in the early 1960s, and based only on third-party testimony (hearsay). In that case, the Globe quotes the brother as saying Shanley told the alleged victim he would "burn in hell" for the sexual acts they had just completed. A priest who knew Shanley and also said mass for Dignity remarked, "It is absolutely impossible that Paul would have made a homophobic comment like that."

After its initial story on Shanley, a well-orchestrated press conference by one of the lawyers who is making his own fortune on church cases produced yet another "victim." A man now 24 claims to have been "raped" by Shanley in the early 80s (when he was two or three?), and at another point said that "sex games" happened during the time when he was six to 11. Even the Globe reporter notes that such a victim would be "atypical" for Shanley since he normally preferred late-teens. A still-active priest who knew Shanley at the time said, "I would stake my own integrity on stating that these charges could not be true. Paul was not sexually attracted to such young boys."

An even thinner cases appears to be the accusation that he "groped" a 15-year-old in a car nearly 20 years ago. The "victim" in that case refuses to comment, and the only complainant-- quoted uncritically by the Globe-- is a woman whose children were taken away from her by police (according to a priest who knew all parties) after Father Shanley complained of violent abuse he'd observed at that time. The complaints against the woman were corroborated by neighbors and other members of the church.

It is not clear how far all this will go. It will surely have repercussions far beyond Boston. The money lost by the Church, as well as the exodus of priests and would-be-priests as a result of the scandal, could badly damage the whole Catholic establishment. Some gay men and lesbians and others damaged by the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the church will rejoice.

One thing is clear: as in similar moral panics involving day-care centers, school teachers and the Boy Scouts, the most lasting damage may well be the end of affectionate care, touching, and individual relationship with children by adults. What priest or teacher or other care-giver would dare be left alone with a child, or be seen caressing a child who has fallen? No more hugging, no more late-night counseling, no more one-on-one confidences, no more field trips.

Many recent studies show that lack of physical contact and intimacy between adults and children is very damaging. The "trauma" that a man alleges 12 years later because he was touched on his bum for two seconds by an older man in a swimming pool seems trivial when compared to that damage. Not to mention the damage to innocent men (as the Globe will probably "spotlight" when the panic dies away), or to boys whose loving relationships with older men have been branded as perverse.

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