IMAGE: Paul Shanley in May 2002
Nelvin Cepeda / pool via Getty Images file
Paul Shanley in May 2002
updated 5/6/2004 1:10:34 PM ET 2004-05-06T17:10:34

Paul Shanley, the priest who was a key figure in the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, has been defrocked, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

In a letter dated May 3, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley told Shanley that he was being removed from his duties as a priest, saying Pope John Paul II made the decision Feb. 19.

The letter said that Shanley would no longer be eligible for financial support or benefits from the archdiocese and that his stipend and medical benefits would be eliminated at the end of the month.

“I earnestly exhort you to take part in the life of the People of God in a manner befitting your new ecclesiastical status, by offering a good example and thereby demonstrating that you are a faithful son of the Church,” O’Malley said in the letter.

Defrocking, or what the Catholic church prefers to call laicization, is applied only rarely and in extreme cases of misconduct. It comes about only after a long process involving the Vatican. At least a few other priests have been dismissed since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002.

The archdiocese intended to make the decision about Shanley public by May 15 “for the good of the Church,” the letter said. The archdiocese did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Charged with raping four men
Shanley, 73, has pleaded not guilty to pending criminal charges in the rapes of Gregory Ford, Paul Busa and two other men at St. Jean’s Parish in Newton in the 1980s. He was released on $300,000 bail and is awaiting trial, which has been tentatively set for October.

The church last month settled lawsuits from four men and their family members against the church over Shanley’s alleged misdeeds.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer whose firm represented Shanley’s alleged victims and hundreds of other victims of clergy sex abuse, said the plaintiffs had sought Shanley’s dismissal from the clergy. He said the archdiocese reassured him that Shanley would be defrocked, although it was not a condition of the settlement.

MacLeish said the move came more quickly than he expected. “It often takes years, and it suggests to me that the archbishop is moving forward expeditiously with these priests,” MacLeish said.

Shanley, once known for his street ministry to gay and troubled youth, became a focal point of the scandal after plaintiffs’ attorneys forced the church to release internal church records showing complaints about him.

Among the records were documents indicating that he was transferred from parish to parish after allegations surfaced and that he had attended a forum with other people who later went on to form the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA.

Hailed as a hero and crusader in the 1960s and 1970s for his street ministry working with disenfranchised youth, he worked with the permission of former cardinals Richard Cushing and Humberto Medeiros but with little oversight from the archdiocese, and he became known as the “street priest” or the “hippie priest.”

He frequented the city’s Combat Zone red-light district, alleys, bus stations and gay bars where troubled and confused youth gathered.

And even though the Catholic church condemned homosexuality, Shanley preached that it was OK and even advocated for gay rights. He called himself a “sexual expert” and advertised his counseling services in the alternative press.

Works shadowed by doubts
Even as city officials hailed his work, allegations were surfacing of sexual contact with some of the young boys he was supposed to be helping.

As far back as 1967, a priest at LaSalette Shrine in Attleboro warned the archdiocese that Shanley had had inappropriate sexual contact with a boy.

The documents included revelations that Shanley attended the 1978 forum in Boston that predated NAMBLA. Shanley also wrote in frank language about having venereal disease.

His comments at that meeting were reported in a publication for gays and forwarded to the archdiocese. Early in 1979, Medeiros wrote to the Vatican, “I believe Father Shanley is a troubled priest.”

Medeiros ended Shanley’s street ministry later that year and assigned him as an associate pastor to St. John the Evangelist Church in Newton. By 1982, a member of the parish tried to tell Law of her suspicions of Shanley, even approaching the archbishop at a personal appearance at the church. Her warnings went unheeded.

Shanley resigned from parish work in 1989 for medical reasons and moved to California. Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop in December 2002 at the height of the scandal, granted Shanley a one-year medical leave and, in a letter, praised his “impressive record.” Weeks later, the Rev. Robert J. Banks of the Boston archdiocese wrote to the Diocese of San Bernardino, saying Shanley was a priest in “good standing” and recommending that he be given a position in the diocese.

Shanley was arrested in San Diego in May 2002 and returned to Massachusetts to face 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault and battery stemming from his assignment at a Newton parish in the 1980s. Two of the alleged victims, now in their 20s, have said Shanley began raping them when they were 6 years old.

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