Off goes former Father Paul Shanley to state prison in Massachusetts for twelve to fifteen years, convicted of digitally raping and otherwise sexually abusing Paul Busa two decades ago. Shanley’s now 74; the earliest he can hope for parole is when he’s 82, at which point the DA could determine that he is still, though frail, “a sexually dangerous person” and should be confined for whatever years remain. A DA in Massachusetts exercised just that option in the case of another ex-priest, James Porter, who was released last year after pleading guilty in 1993 to molesting twenty-eight children. At the time of his death in February at the age of 70, Porter was in civil confinement, with the state seeking to keep him behind bars indefinitely.

So Shanley must know that most likely he will never see the light of day, unless through a barred window. He has more pressing concerns, namely the distinct possibility that he will be murdered in prison. “I want him to die in prison, whether it’s of natural causes or otherwise. However he dies, I hope it’s slow and painful,” declared Shanley’s accuser, Paul Busa, a 27-year-old firefighter, in a written statement read in court.

The menacing words “or otherwise” were no doubt intended to evoke the fate of John Geoghan, a priest sent to a Massachusetts prison in 2002 for fondling a 10-year-old. Although Geoghan was being kept in “protective custody,” he was strangled to death by a man serving a life term for killing a gay man. There have been allegations that prison guards were complicit in his murder. Paul Busa’s father, Richard, is a corrections officer, and other relatives, including Paul’s wife, are in Massachusetts law enforcement.

In his written statement Busa said that Shanley “is a founding member of NAMBLA and openly advocated sex between men and little boys.” It’s this supposed distinction, as the man who created the North American Man Boy Love Association, that has earned Shanley his throne in the Ninth Circle of the damned. It was one of the credentials in his reacute;sumeacute; as presented in a two-and-a-half-hour PowerPoint presentation to the press in April 2002 by Roderick MacLeish Jr., the personal-injury lawyer representing Busa. At that presentation MacLeish released Shanley’s ample diocesan file to the media, which hurriedly repeated MacLeish’s allegations without pausing to scrutinize the file.

Had they done so, they would have found nothing to buttress the claims that Shanley founded NAMBLA, or was ever a member, or had ever advocated sex between men and little boys, or had a thirty-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. Shanley’s defense counsel, Frank Mondano, has said that during jury selection every potential juror was aware of the Shanley scandal, and what they most commonly “knew” was that Shanley was somehow involved with NAMBLA.

When my colleague JoAnn Wypijewski began to report on the Shanley case in 2002, the first thing she did was read the 1,600-page diocesan file that MacLeish had brandished. It became clear to JoAnn that in a case that had consumed the press, most conspicuously the Boston Globe, which ran almost daily stories on the priest scandal for years, she seems to have been the only reporter to have taken the trouble to look at the church dossier.

What she found in the documents were many pages of Shanley’s fervent defense of homosexuality as a normal human variation and the uproar these arguments provoked in the church. (Shanley, like many in his generation, found support for his assertions in Alfred Kinsey’s 1950s sex surveys.) In terms of sexual abuse, the church file has one complaint from the 1960s, which Shanley denied and his superior, rightly or wrongly, determined to be baseless; then nothing until the early 1990s, when a few accusers imputed various abuses to the priest dating back to the 1960s or ’70s. But nowhere was there any support for the claim that Shanley was a founder of NAMBLA or had attended a NAMBLA meeting; JoAnn, despite many discoveries about Shanley’s active sex life as a priest, found no external evidence to back the charge. For her fascinating report on Shanley, see the September/October 2004 issue of Legal Affairs and

What landed Shanley in prison was not anything in the church’s file but the uncorroborated “recovered memories” of one man, Paul Busa. This case is a throwback to the early 1990s and before, when people were put behind bars for lifetimes on the basis of memories elicited by leading questions of psychotherapists. Ultimately, after years of patient effort by a few journalists, psychoanalysts, psychological researchers and advocates for justice, “recovered memory” as a tool of the latter-day Inquisition fell into well-deserved disrepute. In the state that gave us Salem in the seventeenth century and the Amiraults in the twentieth, Shanley’s case has reintroduced recovered memory to the courtrooms of the twenty-first.

In Shanley’s trial, prosecution witnesses would not confirm Busa’s claim that he was regularly taken from religious-instruction classes by Shanley. Nor would they confirm that they had ever seen the priest alone with Busa, or had seen anything untoward in the years 1983-89, during which Busa claims abuse. These claims were based on memories that became active in 2002, following Busa’s conversation with his girlfriend about the nearly identical recovered memories of his friend Gregory Ford. Ford was dropped by the prosecution in the same case, as were two others, their stories apparently deemed by the DA too vexed for courtroom use.

No facts relative to the charges intruded into the courtroom; only emotion. Superior Court Judge Stephen Neel should have dismissed the charges, as requested by the defense. In the atmosphere of Massachusetts it would have taken courage to do that, and truly extraordinary courage for anyone on the jury (which included a therapist) to have insisted that memories are not evidence, and that there was far more than reasonable doubt in this case.