It took nearly four decades after Paul Shanley was first accused of molesting children for him to be brought to trial. Now, at the age of 74, the defrocked priest could spend what remains of his life in prison.
Prosecutors have not said what sentence they will recommend to the judge for Shanley, perhaps the most notorious figure in the sex scandal that rocked the Boston Archdiocese three years ago.
He could get up to life in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 15 for repeatedly raping and fondling the accuser at his Roman Catholic church during the 1980s. Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said only that the recommended sentence “will be significant.”
His accuser, now 27, put his head down and sobbed as the verdicts were read Monday after a trial that hinged on the reliability of what the man claimed were recovered memories of decades-old abuse.
Shanley, once a long-haired, jeans-wearing “street priest” who now wears a hearing aid, showed no emotion as he stood next to his lawyer, Frank Mondano. Bail was revoked and Shanley was immediately led to jail.
“It appears that the absence of a case is not an impediment to securing a conviction,” Mondano said in vowing to appeal. He said he may argue that the emotional testimony of the accuser made it impossible for jurors to reach a verdict based solely on the evidence.
At the sentencing hearing next week, the victim and his family will be allowed to speak about the effects of the abuse. Shanley also has the right to speak, but Mondano said that is highly unlikely, given the planned appeal.
Shanley’s accuser testified for three days, at times sobbing on the stand and begging the judge not to force him to testify in graphic detail. He said Shanley pulled him out of Sunday morning catechism classes beginning at age 6 and molested him in the bathroom, the rectory, the confessional and the pews.
Victoria Blier said she and fellow jurors were swayed by the accuser, believing the man would not have come forward if he wasn’t telling the truth. He received a $500,000 settlement with the archdiocese nearly a year ago.
“I think a persuasive sentiment was he had already gotten a half-million-dollar settlement and he had no reason whatsoever to pursue this criminal case, and he knew that pursuing the criminal case was going to lay a painful life bare,” she said.
The Boston Archdiocese began receiving complaints about Shanley in 1967, and knew he publicly advocated sex between men and boys. But as with other priests who were reported to be sexually abusing children, church officials merely shuffled him from parish to parish instead of removing him.
The accuser had said that he repressed his memories of the abuse but that they came flooding back three years ago, triggered by media coverage of the scandal that began in Boston and soon engulfed the Catholic church.
Shanley’s conviction on all four charges gives prosecutors an important victory in their effort to bring clerics to justice for decades of child sex abuse at parishes across the country.
The defense called just one witness a psychologist who said recovered memories can be false, even if the accuser ardently believes they are true. Shanley’s lawyer argued the accuser was either mistaken or concocted the story to cash in on a multimillion-dollar settlement between the archdiocese and abuse victims.
The accuser, now a firefighter in suburban Boston, was one of at least two dozen men who claimed they had been molested by Shanley, but the only one to testify. Four classmates backed up his story that he was frequently absent from religious education classes.
In the end, jurors believed memories can be repressed, said Blier, 53.
“We agreed after discussion that you can experience something up to a point, and then not think about it and have plenty of other things in your life that are more important,” she said.
The state attorney general’s office concluded that about 1,000 children in the Boston Archdiocese had been molested by more than 240 priests since the 1940s. Shanley is one of the few priests prosecutors have been able to bring charges against.
Another central figure in the sex abuse scandal, defrocked priest John Geoghan, was given a nine- to 10-year sentence for groping a 10-year-old boy. He was beaten and strangled in prison in 2003, and a commission probing the slaying said he had been harassed and physically abused by guards.
Most priests accused of wrongdoing escaped prosecution because the statute of limitations ran out long ago. But shortly after leaving the Newton parish in 1989, Shanley left the state, effectively stopping the clock.
He was arrested in California at the height of the scandal in May 2002, and charged with raping four boys from the Newton parish. Prosecutors later dropped two of the accusers from the case in what they said was a bid to strengthen their case, and a third who they were unable to find after a pretrial hearing.
Rodney Ford, whose son also had accused Shanley of abuse, called the verdict “a relief for my son, and all the other victims.”
Shanley’s niece disagreed, saying, “There are no winners today. There are only losers. We’re no closer to finding out the truth about this scandal or finding out what happened.”