Gay shame aided priest's lurid lifestyle

By Margery Eagan
Boston Herald
February 15, 2005

Much has been written about the church cult of secrecy that enabled predatory Paul Shanley, to be sentenced today, to thrive.

Less has been said of the secrecy and shame shrouding homosexuality itself 30, 20, even 10 years ago. That was no less an enabler.

Alleged Shanley survivor John Harris, who'll be in court this morning, said yesterday he was so confused about what it meant to be gay that when Shanley allegedly forced sex on him just minutes into their first supposed ``counseling session, I didn't really understand I'd been raped. I thought, well, this is what I have to do to be a gay person.''

Then a 21-year-old college senior, Harris remembered going into the bathroom afterward and standing there frozen, not knowing whether to come out and say goodbye or thank him.

Later Shanley took him to a cinema where strangers had sex in one of the restrooms. When Harris recoiled, he said Shanley put him down, ``I know your type,'' Harris said the priest told him. ``You want the suburban house with the yard and the white picket fence.''

In fact a house and yard and fence sounded quite fine to Harris. But we did not allow a regular suburban life for gay men then. In many quarters we don't allow it now, either.

The first time an alleged Shanley survivor we'll call ``Bill'' turned up for his counseling session at the priest's Beacon Street apartment - fourth floor, near Fairfield - Bill was 15. He was from Dorchester, and knew nobody openly gay.

Bill remembers the mobile, like an infant's, that Shanley hung above his mattress on the floor. ``It had all sexual words,'' Bill said yesterday. ``Hermaphrodite, transsexual, transvestite, bisexual.'' He remembers Shanley talking about how many sit-ups and push-ups he could do, how he ``loved to show off his body and be admired,'' both for his looks as for his budding celebrity: in drawers were articles from Boston papers about the charismatic Pied Piper saving troubled teen-age souls.

Bill, who spent four years in an orphanage, said he craved attention. Suddenly he had it. From ``a well-respected man. What did I know?'' When every week's ``counseling'' session became an alleged sex session, when two or three weeks into their relationship Shanley began introducing him to other men for sex, and later asked Bill for all the details, Bill, like John Harris, thought, ``well, maybe this is right. Maybe this is what being gay is all about, having sex with lots of people.''

There was no ``Will and Grace'' on TV, Bill said. No positive models of gay men in the culture, no Gay/Straight Alliance in the high school or Web sites or books at Borders. There was Liberace and Jon Voight playing a gay hooker in ``Midnight Cowboy'' and a Time magazine article 12-year-old Bill snuck from his living room that debated homosexual deviance. So this Catholic school boy ``prayed a lot and asked God to forgive me . . . I knew this was terrible sin.''

But Bill also remembers seeing a TV movie starring wholesome and avuncular Hal Holbrook as a divorced man whose son visited for the summer and found out his father was gay. ``And he was like an ordinary dad,'' Bill said. ``Not effeminate. He wasn't twisted or a murderer.'' A good man. And Bill remembered how much that mattered.

If Bill were coming to terms with his teen-age homosexuality in 2005, maybe someone like Hal Holbrook, maybe even with a yard and picket fence, might be his teacher. And he could ask him for help. But 30 years ago, there were only secret gay bars, secret gay movie houses and secret-keeping men like Paul Shanley, Catholic priest. Whenever anybody says it was better then, remember that.

Margery Eagan's radio show airs at noon weekdays and 9 a.m. Saturdays on 96.9 FM-Talk.
















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