By Scott Malone

 

BOSTON (Reuters) - A defrocked U.S. Roman Catholic priest who was one of the first to be convicted when the church's worldwide sex abuse scandal was first exposed more than a decade ago is due to be released from prison, a Massachusetts prosecutor said on Tuesday.

 

Paul Shanley, now 86, was convicted in 2005 of repeatedly raping a boy over a period of years in the 1980s and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison.

 

The scandal undermined the church's moral authority and sapped its finances as it paid out billions of dollars in settlements.

 

"He is now scheduled to be released from that sentence and begin 10 years of supervised probation," Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan said in a statement. "The commonwealth is not legally permitted to seek that Shanley be confined further without expert testimony that he meets the legal criteria for civil confinement as a sexually dangerous person."

 

State regulations forbid disclosing Shanley's date of release, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, who said he remains in custody at the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Victims' group the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Shanley still could pose a threat.

"Research and experience teach us that age does not cure pedophilia," SNAP Executive Director Barbara Dorris said in an email. "Often age gives predators an advantage. People may see an old man and assume he is harmless. That is not the case."

Shanley's trial was one of the first after reports of serial sex abuse by Boston-area priests, and systematic cover-ups by bishops, first exploded onto the world stage in 2002, with the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning report.

Fifteen years on, allegations of sex abuse continue to pour in against U.S. priests, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reporting that last year 911 new accusers levied credible charges against 463 priests. That represented more than double the number of credible accusers the prior year, an increase that reflected changed Minnesota laws on reporting past sex abuse, diocesan bankruptcies and increased public awareness following the Academy Award-winning film "Spotlight," which recounted the Globe's story.

The U.S. church last year paid $141.3 million in settlements to accusers. Some 43 priests were defrocked last year, with another 111 allowed to remain priests but stripped over their ministerial duties.

Twelve U.S. dioceses have filed for bankruptcy since the scandal broke.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bill Trott)