Paul Shanley -- a defrocked priest at the center of a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston -- was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison Tuesday, after being found guilty of raping and sexually abusing a child in the 1980s.


Shanley, 74, is one of the few priests implicated in the scandal ever to stand trial. At his sentencing, Judge Stephen A. Neel told the courtroom, ?It is difficult to imagine a more egregious misuse of trust and authority.? At the time of the incidents, Shanley was a parish priest in a Boston suburb.


While the prosecutor had requested a life sentence, Shanley may end up spending the rest of his life in jail, anyway -- due to his advanced age and ill health. The accuser in this case ? along with others who say they were also victims of sexual abuse by priests ? reacted to the sentencing with great emotion?just as they had last week when the verdict was announced.


At that time [07 February], the victim smiled, cried and hugged his wife. "I can't believe it," declared another Shanley accuser, who said he was in shock "that the right thing really happened?I just thought he would get away with it. He's always gotten away with every crime he's committed. I'm very emotional. I'm thrilled. I can't tell you. For once, justice prevailed."


Another accuser, John Harris -- who says he was abused by Shanley in 1979 -- sobbed in the arms of a friend. "It was like a release of emotion for me, knowing he's been out there for two years and [I was] just feeling powerless," he said. "There wasn't anything we could do about it." Mr. Harris paused to catch his breath, and then added, "Now, finally, we can get him behind bars."


According to civil lawyers, at least two dozen other people allege that Shanley abused them. His church file has claims of abuse dating back to the 1960s, most of them from teenage boys or young men. There are also women who say Shanley abused them. In one church document, Shanley admitted to having sex with adolescents. 


But the former priest also had his supporters -- including Paul Shannon, who watched the trial each day. He said the case against Shanley was preposterous?and that, given the physical layout of his church, it would have been impossible for the priest to have secretly abused anyone. Mr. Shannon called the verdict "a catastrophe for me personally, for Paul Shanley certainly, and for everyone who is concerned about justice."


Among the more than 80 American priests accused of sexual abuse during the last three years, Shanley is only the second to have been tried in a criminal court.  In 2002, John Geoghan was found guilty of indecent assault and battery and sent to prison, where he was later killed by another inmate. Two other priests have pled guilty and gone to jail.


Most allegations of clergy abuse involve events that would have happened decades ago. The accused cannot go to trial because the statute of limitations on the alleged crimes has run out. The charges against Shanley were admissible because he moved out of Massachusetts in 1989 -- stopping the clock on the statute of limitations.


Because so few priests have faced trial, others who allege they were abused by clergy followed this case closely. Ann Hagan Webb of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the outcome gave them a measure of relief and satisfaction. "So many of us had to count on this case for our own justice because our cases could not be brought to court," she said. "So we feel a sense of justice here."


This case hinged on the memories of a now 27-year-old firefighter. The victim testified that in the 1980s, when he was six years old, Shanley took him out of Sunday religious school to rape and fondle him in the church bathroom, rectory, pews and confessional. The abuse continued for six years. But he says he only recovered his memories of the incidents three years ago when he read about Shanley in the newspaper and talked to a boyhood friend who also claims he was abused. 


The defense argued that the victim made up his memories to gain attention and to join in a personal injury lawsuit against the Boston Archdiocese. The accuser settled the lawsuit last year for half a million dollars. Leaving the courthouse, Shanley's lawyer Frank Mondano said he almost expected a guilty verdict. "I wish I could say (I'm) surprised," he told reporters waiting outside. 


Mr. Mondano argued to the jury that personal injury lawyers orchestrated the victim's recovered memories. However, Carmen Durso -- who has represented more than 100 clergy abuse victims and has seven pending civil cases involving Shanley -- said personal injury lawyers "should be thanked for bringing the extent and scope of the clergy abuse crisis to light." Mr. Durso said it was the civil lawsuit charging the Boston Archdiocese with negligent oversight of Shanley that helped open up the files of dozens of other priests. Without that lawsuit, "it might have taken much longer to uncover the widespread abuse," he said. "And had we not had such a notorious pedophile at the center of this, people might not have been as interested as they became."


The Boston Archdiocese issued a statement after the Shanley verdict was announced, apologizing for the crimes and the harm done to children by other priests. The statement said the Church would keep sexual abuse victims in its prayers.