Sinister Conviction of Boston Priest
"Recovered Memory" Witchhunt
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 843, 4 March 2005.
"Recovered memory" prosecutions—which put hundreds behind bars in the daycare and "satanic abuse" witchhunts of the 1980s and early 1990s—are back. In Boston on February 15, 74-year-old defrocked priest, Paul Shanley, was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison based solely on uncorroborated "recovered memories" of a man who claimed Shanley abused him 20 years earlier. Alexander Cockburn wrote in CounterPunch (19/20 February): "In the state that gave us Salem in the seventeenth century and the Amiraults (all wrongly sent to prison on charges brought by Middlesex county District Attorney Martha Coakley) in the twentieth, Shanley's case has reintroduced recovered memory to the courtrooms of the twenty-first."
Shanley has been one of the prime whipping boys in the explosive sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic church beginning in 2002, when the Boston Globe began a series on priests and sexual abuse of youth. Roderick MacLeish Jr., the personal injury lawyer representing Shanley's accuser, retailed scandalous tales to the press about Shanley, which have been refuted by JoAnn Wypijewski in CounterPunch. She actually read the 1,600-page official church file on Shanley, which apparently no other reporters bothered to do. As Cockburn pointed out, "Had they done so, they would have found nothing to buttress the claims that Shanley founded NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association], or was ever a member, or had ever advocated sex between men and little boys, or had a 30-year record of child abuse complaints made against him or a history of being moved from parish to parish. Yet all these allegations have become the common currency of Shanley's biography, and if guards usher a murderer into his cell, the killer will probably have the NAMBLA charge at the top of his mind."
In fact, Paul Shanley did openly advocate recognizing homosexuality as a normal sexual variation (based partly on the pioneering work of Alfred Kinsey), and did have homosexual liaisons. He was a long-haired "street priest" in the 1960s, mentioned in the book Common Ground, who tried to help runaways and kids hooked on drugs. Shanley's "association" with NAMBLA is that he attended a conference of people fighting a Boston anti-gay witchhunt at the end of which some people, not including Shanley, founded a group that later became NAMBLA.
NAMBLA's name is perennially dragged through the plentiful Boston mud, having been pounded for over 20 years by media smears and witchhunting prosecutions. We in the Spartacist League have repeatedly defended this tiny beleaguered group as an elementary act of proletarian decency. We oppose criminalizing their advocacy of the eminently reasonable proposition that youth who have sexual feelings be allowed to express them. NAMBLA simply advocates the decriminalization of consensual sex between men and boys.
It is telling, in this deeply puritanical society, that the pitch of modern inquisitions increases according to the proximity of youth and sex. It is no accident that the church sex scandals have focused overwhelmingly on gay sex (did no priest ever touch a girl?), as this is guaranteed to set reactionary alarm bells ringing a lot louder. Since the daycare witchhunts, the code word for anti-sex crusaders, from the Christian right to the straightlaced morality feminists, has been "protect the children" from so-called pedophiles. This campaign reflects anti-gay bigotry, increased powers of repression for the capitalist state and a shoring up of reactionary "family values" like the domestic slavery of women and stultifying "abstinence only" for young people.
Gerald Amirault, a married man with children of his own, was released from prison in 2004 after being unjustly imprisoned for 18 years, framed up with incredible tales of evil robots, knives and dead pets at the Fells Acres Day School he ran with his sister and mother (who were also imprisoned). This was based solely on the coerced testimony of children whose only real abuse came at the hands of the prosecutors who, in their zeal for convictions and publicity, fed so much crap into them that they still reel from the trauma. Just as Amirault was up for a commutation, the church sex story exploded and he lost another two years to prison, as the cowardly politicians of Massachusetts refused, in the midst of the scandal, to set him free, despite the Board of Pardons' unanimous recommendation. We defended the Amiraults, and many other daycare workers, against the witchhunts of their time.
Now former priest Paul Shanley has been thrown to the wolves of "recovered memory" prosecution. This is a very dangerous thing. No evidence was presented that he committed any crime. This may be a difficult case for some of our readers to grasp, given the passionate—and legitimate—disgust so many feel for the real miseries inflicted by organized religion in this socially backward country, from the Christian fundamentalist right to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic church upholds subservience to authority, from children's submission to parents, a wife's submission to her husband, the flock's submission to the priest and submission of all humanity to God. The worst thing, ultimately, about religion is that it preaches blind faith in false, mystical forces ruling our fate, crippling humanity's fight for freedom from oppression and for control over nature.
We care about the suffering of those victimized by corrupt, violent institutions and adults—whether priests or bullying state prosecutors. The terror and helplessness felt by children coerced into submission by frightening authority figures like priests, especially when combined with enforced guilt about sex, does scar them for life. Obviously the church has a lot to cover up—look at the millions in hush money it's been dishing out (including to some of Shanley's accusers). Forced out over the scandal was Boston's arrogant Cardinal Bernard Law, the Catholic version of Harvard's all-purpose bigot Larry Summers (who recently speculated that women, Jews, Catholics and white basketball players are perhaps innately incapable of certain activities). Surely there are many abusive priests. But we'll never know what happened in many cases, as the actual guilt or innocence of those singled out to be demonized is irrelevant to both prosecutors and the church hierarchy, who would rather throw money at accusers than uncover the truth. This too is a terrible injustice to those abused.
The falsity and reactionary political uses of "recovered memory" prosecutions were thoroughly exposed a decade ago. In a major review of research and books debunking "recovered memory" prosecutions, we wrote: "Much of this persecution aims to strengthen the bourgeois state in its regulation of the population and to spread panic, as a diversion from the real brutality of life in this twisted, mean, bigoted, racist society" (Women and Revolution, No. 45, Winter-Spring 1996). What we wrote then is equally true today: It is in the interests of all in the workers movement to protest and oppose this new, deadly "recovered memory" witchhunt. Free Paul Shanley!