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Shanley trial underscores complexities of sex-abuse cases

The priest has had many accusers, but now only one whose case is in court - complicating a high-profile drama.

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Opening statements in the trial of Paul Shanley are set to begin Monday - advancing an epic in which a popular long-haired priest of the 1960s has become one of the biggest pariahs in today's clergy sexual-abuse scandal.

Defrocked by the Vatican last year, Mr. Shanley is one of few clergy accused of molestation to actually face prosecution. He is charged with child rape and indecent assault and battery while a priest at a nearby Newton parish in the 1980s. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Yet despite his notoriety among victims' advocates - child-abuse accusations date back to at least 1967 - a conviction is far from certain. Though four men originally accused him of molestation, prosecutors dropped two of them from the case in July, and a third was dropped last week after failing to appear for scheduled meetings. Now, the trial is based on the allegations of a lone accuser.

That could weaken the case against Shanley, say experts. It also underscores the challenges and complexities surrounding the prosecution of child abuse, especially when trials take place decades after the alleged crimes. At worst, say some, the way this case has played out - especially if Shanley is acquitted - could deter future victims from stepping forward.

"[The sole accuser] is all alone. That's got to feel rough," says Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis and an expert on the clergy sex-abuse scandal. "I guarantee if he knew he'd be alone in the beginning ... he wouldn't be here. There's got to be some anger and resentment connected to that."

To victims' advocates, Shanley is infamous for his cunning and malice. They say he preyed on young victims repeatedly. And according to church documents released after the scandal broke in 2002, he was transferred from parish to parish over several decades.


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