Shanley case goes to the jury

Closing arguments spotlight accuser

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff  |  February 4, 2005

CAMBRIDGE -- Paul R. Shanley's accuser is a victim overwhelmed with true memories of abuse by his parish priest, or he's a suggestible man who believes vivid stories that were planted in his mind.

He is a publicity-monger desperate for attention and reward, or he's a brave young man with a story to tell and nothing to gain but the truth.

It's now up to a Middlesex County jury to decide, as it debates whether Shanley, 74, repeatedly raped and abused the alleged victim in the early 1980s.

As lawyers delivered their closing arguments yesterday in Shanley's child rape trial in Middlesex Superior Court, it was the accuser who seemed more directly on trial: his life recounted, his motives questioned, his testimony examined. Both sides reminded jurors how the accuser had sobbed last week on the witness stand, but they offered different theories for those emotions.

The alleged victim, a 27-year-old firefighter, accuses Shanley of molesting him during Sunday school hours from ages 6 to 11, in the pews, rectory, confessional, and boys' room of St. Jean Church in Newton. The accuser says he forgot about the abuse, but remembered it in 2002, when he learned of Boston Globe stories about Shanley and a Sunday school classmate. Last year, he was awarded $500,000 in a civil settlement with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

The pain the man endured by testifying, prosecutor Lynn Rooney suggested yesterday, proved that his memories were genuine. "He has the money. He got that money over nine months ago, no strings attached," she told the jury. "What did he get for coming in here?"

Shanley's defense lawyer, Frank Mondano, laid out an alternate scenario: that the man's recollections were "false memories" suggested by friends, therapists, and personal-injury lawyers, who were in touch with him after he said he recalled the abuse.

"False memory is largely a function of suggestion," Mondano told jurors, "and in this case, suggestion is everywhere."

Based on the evidence presented, Mondano said, many of the stories of alleged abuse were highly unlikely or physically impossible. Could Shanley have stood menacingly in the doorway of the boys' room, Mondano said, when it was a high-traffic spot on busy Sunday mornings? Could Shanley have taken the accuser out of class when two of his teachers testified that he did not?

And while the alleged victim says Shanley molested him in a confessional in the second grade, Mondano said, one teacher testified that students did not start making confessions until fourth grade.

"It's just plain wrong," Mondano said. "The only consistent facts offered in support of these allegations are demonstrably untrue."

But Rooney cited memory specialists who say trauma victims often forget peripheral details. And she said Shanley could have molested a boy even when others were present.

"A priest and a small child sitting in a pew," she said. "Who would approach that twosome?"

Rooney used dramatic touches throughout her half-hour closing argument, showing photographs of the alleged victim as a child and repeating what she said was Shanley's warning: "If you tell, no one will believe you."

By contrast, Mondano, who made a blistering cross-examination of Shanley's accuser last week, was sedate and methodical. He apologized to the jury for appearing aggressive and said he never meant to denigrate the accuser. But he also highlighted apparent inconsistencies in the man's testimony and said that, at one point, he seemed eager for publicity.

The alleged victim returned to the courtroom for both closing arguments. The Globe's policy is not to identify victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse.

The jury continues its deliberations today.

The defense earlier called Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, to challenge the alleged victim's so-called repressed memories. Loftus said scientific experiments have proven that people can be manipulated into remembering things that never happened.

"I don't believe there is any credible scientific evidence for the idea that years of brutalization can be massively repressed," she said.

But under cross-examination, Loftus said she agrees that people can forget traumatic events and remember them later.