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A nuanced look at a notorious priest

Call it the cringe factor. These days, whenever a Catholic priest pops up on television in a story about child sexual abuse, we brace ourselves for the worst. So it seems almost counter-intuitive that, in a New England Cable News documentary about the Paul Shanley case, one of the most clear-eyed subjects is — yes — a priest.

The Reverend Robert Bullock, who used to supervise Shanley, speaks eloquently of the Catholic doctrine that good and evil often reside in the same person. Bullock, who possesses a young man’s voice that emanates from an old man’s face, also delivers the epitaph that is the title of the hourlong film: "Who can fathom the human heart?"

Who Can Fathom the Human Heart? Father Shanley and the Church Crisis is an ambitious examination of one of the most notorious figures to emerge from the pedophile-priest scandal: the Reverend (he has yet to be defrocked) Paul Shanley, admired in the 1960s and ’70s for his work with street kids and gay Catholics, and reviled since 2002, when the Boston Globe reported on a long list of boys and men who claim they were sexually abused by Shanley. In some ways, Shanley has come to symbolize the crisis, with those unforgettable images of him being whisked from his home in San Bernardino, California, in order to be arraigned — in handcuffs — in a Massachusetts courtroom.

Shanley turns out to be a man of contradictions even among those who know him. For instance, we see homeless advocate Kip Tiernan say that, during the years of Shanley’s street ministry, there was "never a whisper of behavior that was unacceptable."

Yet another contemporary of Shanley’s, former state legislator Elaine Noble, says it was well-known within the gay and lesbian community (Noble was the state’s first openly lesbian legislator) that Shanley frequented gay bars and bathhouses. During one especially wrenching moment, Noble is overwhelmed by emotion. Though she doesn’t say much, it’s clear that she’s thinking about the damage that could have been prevented if only she and others had spoken out.

Iris Adler, NECN’s executive editor, who oversaw and reported Who Can Fathom the Human Heart?, says she sees the film as a way of examining the entire pedophile-priest crisis by focusing on the life of one man. "I think in bits and pieces the crisis has evolved over the past two years. But what television hasn’t done is take a good, hard look at the issue," Adler says.

And, as she observes, Shanley — unlike some other priests — did not have a personnel file bulging with allegations of sexual misconduct. Though a complaint was made about Shanley as early as 1961, the only one that made it into Church files dates back to 1966 — and there were no others for several decades after that. Shanley attracted attention for the weirdly positive things he was alleged to have said about sex with children, incest, and even bestiality, rather than for anything he did.

After Humberto Cardinal Medeiros ended Shanley’s street ministry, in the late 1970s, Shanley appears to have spiraled downward, moving on — if the charges are to be believed — from having sex with young adults and adolescents to preying on children. The best-known of Shanley’s victims is Greg Ford, who claims that the priest sexually abused him from the time he was six until he turned 13. Ford would not be interviewed for the documentary, but his parents provide testimony that has not lost its power despite their frequent appearances at televised news conferences.

As is generally the case with these stories, the real bad guy turns out to be not Shanley (bad enough, certainly, if the charges are true) but Bernard Cardinal Law, the former Boston archbishop who covered up and enabled an entire cadre of Roman-collared rapists. After spending much of the 1990s quietly settling claims brought by Shanley’s alleged victims, Law still recommended him for a pastoral job in New York City in 1997. Fortunately, the late John Cardinal O’Connor just said no.

It wasn’t until the media and law enforcement stepped in that Shanley’s alleged reign of terror came to an end. Today, we learn, he lives quietly in Provincetown, awaiting justice on a wide range of criminal and civil charges.

The documentary Who Can Fathom the Human Heart? Father Shanley and the Church Crisis will be shown on Thursday, December 4, at 7 p.m. on New England Cable News, to be followed by a special edition of NewsNight at 8. NECN will rebroadcast the film on Saturday, December 6, at 7 p.m.

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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