What Paul Shanley Said in Boston, 1978

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Speech by Father Paul Shanley to the Psychological Panel at the Boston/Boise Committee conference
on “Legal, Psychological, and Ethical Issues of Intergenerational Relationships,”
Community Church, Boston, December 2, 1978

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Some may have been wondering how I was faring sitting here hearing all these remarks about Irish Catholics. I want you to know that they didn’t bother me because recently I was converted to Polish Catholicism. In a sense, this whole meeting is ridiculous, and I hope, a century from now, people will look back and say, “Did they really have to have a meeting on this subject?” Because it is ludicrous, from one point of view. From another point of view, it is truly historic, and I have waited a long, long time to see people gather together in a concern not just for the boys, but for the men, and for the professionals and relatives and friends and so forth of those involved in the relationships such as the ones we hope to dissect a little today.

There’s no way that I can condense into four minutes my impressions, but I hope to perhaps get time either individually or in the question period to talk about my own experiences a little better than I can in the free time. So, I’m just going to give you one instance that kind of lured me into a concern that should have been basic to my own Christianity. But it wasn’t obvious to me until this incident occurred.

I have had the privilege of being a juvenile court chaplain, and later being a street priest working with runaways and drugs and so forth, prior to getting involved in my work with sexual minorities. I can remember a boy who was on the streets doing a lot of hustling, who had come from a fine home environment, but his hair was too long and his father had told him to get a haircut or get out. He got out, and he came all the way to Boston, and when I ran into him, he was hanging around on the street and living from hand to mouth. Everybody had failed with this kid. Police officers had failed. Juvenile probation officers had failed. Psychologists had failed. Obviously, his parents had failed. Nobody could get through to him. And then one night along came a man who took him home with him. I had failed too—put me in there too. He took him home, got him off drugs, got his VD cleared up, got him to a dentist because his teeth were rotting from the addiction that he had to speed, got him eyeglasses, got him back in school, then set about reuniting him with his parents, and successfully accomplished that—without the necessity of a haircut. I could go on listing the way in which this boy’s personality index profile went drastically upward as a result of his relationship with this man. And what did it cost him? On one or two occasions, the boy was asked by the man if he would be interested in a sexual relationship, because the man was. On one of those occasions, the boy said no; on the other, he said yes.

The boy eventually went home, eventually confided the incident to his father, and immediately the man was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted and sent to prison. And there began the psychic demise of that kid. He had loved this man, not to the extent that a lot of boys today are going to tell us about, or a lot of men are going to tell us about their relationships with boys. It was only a brief and passing thing as far as the sex was concerned. But the love was deep, and the gratitude to the man was deep. And when he realized that that one indiscretion in the eyes of society and the law had cost this man perhaps twenty years—because that’s what he was sentenced to, although he didn’t serve twenty years—the boy began to fall apart.

The incidences that he went through in the police station, in backrooms, the descriptions he had to give over and over on the witness stand, the relationship that then developed as the other peers in his community learned about this trial and conviction of the man—all of these things led to the ultimate destruction, psychically, I would say, of that young person, not to mention the obvious destruction of the adult.

We’re not going to be talking about morality here this morning, but we are this afternoon when we get into ethics, but simply psychologically there can be no question in my mind but that we have our options and our convictions upside down if we were truly concerned about the boys in this particular instance.

Now, since that time, this has multiplied over and over and over again. That’s been my reaction, my experience of the relationships between men and boys. So far, I have found the cure to be worse than whatever you want to call the original operation, whether it was sick, or cynical, or criminal. The cure does far more damage. And that’s what I think is going to be the major impression that may be conveyed today. I am very privileged and grateful to have been allowed to be here. I think I belong on that side of this podium. But thank you, and thank you for everything you’re going to contribute to my education today.

[Excerpts of the discussion]


Dr. Richard Pillard (moderator):  Just to keep there from being too much agreement on this panel, let me ask a devil’s advocate question.  Children are naturally obliging and want to do what older people expect of them.  How can you keep a child from feeling exploited, or from being exploited, by an older person, particularly if he’s quite young?  What sorts of protections can a kid have in relationships with men?

Shanley:  Just two brief reflections.  Very often I find it’s the man who is being exploited by the boy, and sometimes I think we have to help adult males to learn how to handle that situation.  I think it was mentioned before that many kids—in fact, most kids—are very capable of handling themselves and they don’t get exploited as often as we would like to think.
    And secondly, and I don’t know if Tom [Reeves] meant to imply this, but I thought I heard you talking as if all these kids were gay, and my experience is that many, if not most, grow up to become almost exclusively heterosexual….

[In response to a question about whether such relationships are good or bad:]

Shanley:  That word exploitative has been used.  I would like to define that as using without caring.  That’s my understanding of “exploitative” sex.  I think a lot of straight sex is exploitative.  I think a lot of sex between parents is exploitative.  And I think an awful lot of parents are predators.  But whatever criteria you arrive at in deciding what sex between men and boys is exploitative, I think you could balance that against parents.  You know, you can’t abolish parenthood, and neither should you abolish man-boy sex simply because it might not live up to the highest ideal.

[In response to a question about how a clergyman can regard homosexuality as a positive thing in view of biblical condemnations of it:]

Shanley:  I can very adequately treat that topic, and will do so with you, but I would like to reserve it either for the ethics [panel] this afternoon or maybe together we could talk about that, because I think we’re getting off of the psychological, which most of the people in this room are here for at this moment.  Let me just sum up the whole thing on scripture by saying when those scriptures were written, the authors of the scriptures never even heard of a homosexual.  They thought all people were born straight, and for some perversity of will, some straight people had [homosexual] acts.  And that’s true.

Half of American males have had homosexual acts—virtually half.  But nobody would say that half of them are homosexuals.  So, the scriptures were written by people who didn’t know what any fourteen-year-old kid knows today:  that one in twenty to one in ten people is a homosexual, constitutional, irreversible, by the age of at least seven….

[In response to a question about boys and prostitution:]

Shanley:  I don’t know of any sexual act—this is a pretty sweeping statement, but I know of no sexual act that is in itself psychically destructive, with four exceptions.  I don’t say these are necessarily destructive, but if none of these four are discovered, then I don’t think an act is destructive:  force, money, sex with a person to whom you’re not attracted, or incest between a parent and child.  So, I would put money in as something can jeopardize, but I don’t think it necessarily has to jeopardize a person’s psychic growth or maturity. But it’s one of the ways I think that is very open to abuse.  I hope that people don’t misunderstand my bringing this up.  It might be good to make a couple of distinctions at this point….  My experience with that whole hustling scene was perhaps the one that led me into this conclusion that a great number of these boys are straight and ultimately adopt straight lives.  But another interesting conclusion I came to was that a large percentage of the johns, the customers, were straight men, predominantly straight.  Perhaps I should define “straight” as being predominantly or exclusively attracted to members of the opposite sex.  I think most of the men in this country who’ve had sex with males are themselves heterosexual.  So the hustling scene is not the man-boy love scene.  The two are not synonymous.  But it is certainly part of it.


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