Through eight stormy years, the Rev. Paul Richard Shanley of Boston maintained a unique ministry. He was a Roman Catholic priest without a parish—but with a hot-line listing in gay publications. As counselor to those shunned by many as outcasts, he explains, "There was no parish I could find that would put up with these people. But I kept a phone number; sexual minorities could always find me."
More unusual still, Father Shanley had the blessing of his archbishop, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, in carrying out his special assignment. In 1970 Shanley had told the cardinal that he saw a growing "sexual confusion among our children, and that was where I should go." The cardinal agreed, and Shanley became the first and only U.S. priest sanctioned by his bishop to work among homosexuals, transsexuals and other sexual groups.
Earlier this year, however, Shanley, 48, was abruptly transferred to a small suburban parish. Then this summer Cardinal Medeiros issued a 16-page letter reasserting the church's traditional opposition to homosexuality, which seemed to repudiate all of Father Shanley's efforts. The crux of the clash centered on their differing approaches to the problem. "What the cardinal had in mind," says Shanley, "was that I would go shrive them of their sins, get them to a shrink, get them cured of their illness and bring them back to God." But in Shanley's view, that is not the kind of saving his flock needs: "I found that these people were not sinful or sick." Gays, the priest argues, are "just as holy as straights, but they feel rejected by their church. I try to show them how to reconcile their God-given homosexual orientation with their Christianity," he continues. "There is nothing in the Scriptures which condemns them. Can anyone imagine Jesus saying, 'I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly—except for you faggots, dykes and queers'?"
Claiming direct descent from Brennan on the Moor, an Irish Robin Hood, Shanley grew up in the rough, sordid sector of downtown Boston dubbed "the Combat Zone." His father owned bowling alleys and poolrooms where young Paul met his share of pimps, prostitutes and drunks. Far from hardening him, the experience taught him compassion. "Not until people mingle," he explains, "do they realize people differ in degrees, not in kind."
He prepared for the priesthood in Boston-area seminaries and, after his ordination in 1960, distinguished himself working with young delinquents and drug addicts. That led to his decision to minister to sexual minorities—and to outraged complaints from some segments of the church. Shanley conveys no bitterness toward Cardinal Medeiros. "There's pressure on him—the conservatives are the ones who support the church best, and they didn't like what I was doing," he says. "For eight years, and I give him credit, the cardinal withstood the letters and criticism."
Even without official backing to work with homosexuals, Father Shanley continues to do so on his own time and as best he can on his priestly salary of $350 a month. His efforts do not go unappreciated. "He can lunch with a gay millionaire, be on the street with poor transsexuals in the afternoon, dine with his fellow clergy and at night counsel parents of a lesbian or baptize a baby in the parish," says gay activist Brian McNaught. "He is one of the few priests whom I can comfortably call 'Father.' "
After eight years, his gay ministry was banned in Boston