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Former priest convicted of abuse


Local diocesan members of the clergy are reeling and dealing as best they can with the continuing story of alleged sexual abuse and misconduct of a former colleague, the now-defrocked priest, John J. Geoghan.

Middlesex Superior Court recently found Geoghan, 66, guilty of sexually abusing a 10-year old boy in a suburban Boston public swimming pool a decade ago.

In a related development, the Suffolk County Superior Court released previously sealed documents and letters that show Geoghan receiving gentle treatment from members of the hierarchy who demonstrate little concern for the victims of his abuse.

Though the conviction is the least serious of the three criminal cases, Geoghan could be sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison for the crime. Judge Sandra Hamlin has ordered Geoghan to undergo psychiatric evaluation for 30 days prior to sentencing.

The laicized priest faces two more criminal cases -- with allegations of rape and sexual assault -- scheduled to go to trial in nearby Suffolk Superior Court in the coming months.

Following the conviction, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law said that the Geoghan case and his handling of it has been “the most difficult thing I’ve had to face in my whole life.”

Geoghan is to begin his second trial Feb. 20 for charges that he raped a 7-year-old boy. The archdiocese has reportedly settled 50 civil suits with Geoghan’s alleged victims for more than $10 million. More than 80 other civil trials are pending.

Geoghan, who was ordained in 1962, was retired from active ministry in 1994. The following year news reports about his sexual abuse of children began to surface and more victims came forward, unveiling a pattern over decades in which Geoghan gained access to children, faced accusations, received psychiatric treatment and returned to work, supposedly cured. As press reports of abuse mounted, he was involuntarily laicized in 1998.

The victim in the assault trial, now a 20-year-old college student, testified that in 1991 Geoghan approached him at a swimming pool, offering to teach him to dive. After 10 to 15 minutes of verbal coaching, he said, the priest put his hand under his shorts in the pool and squeezed his buttocks.

New Orleans’ new archbishop, Alfred C. Hughes, who was Geoghan’s surpervisor in Boston at the time of the incident, was among the witnesses who testified against Geoghan. Hughes said that after receiving a warning that Geoghan’s “proselytizing” at the pool could be “open to prurient interpretation,” Hughes instructed Geoghan to stay away from the pool. Hughes said, however, that he had not received word of an assault when he gave Geoghan the order.

Geoghan did not testify at the trial.

The jury deliberated about eight hours before delivering its verdict.

News reports of the court trial and numerous pending charges have been ricocheting throughout the local archdiocese for more than two weeks, making local headlines in both daily newspapers, The Boston Globe and Boston Herald, as well as grabbing airtime in local broadcast outlets throughout the city.

Details surfaced

On Jan. 6, details of Geoghan’s history of sexual abuse surfaced when the Globe began a several-part “Spotlight” series, reporting not only the charges and allegations, but also the pending release of thousands of legal documents, depositions, psychiatric reports, memoranda, and other correspondence relevant to the Geoghan case. The Globe fought successfully in court to have the documents released to the public.

The documents, released Jan. 23, reveal the archdiocese’s gentle treatment of Geoghan and a near-complete disregard for Geoghan’s victims. Letters to Geoghan from former Boston Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros and from Bernard Law, Boston’s current leader, are void of criticism.

Among the released documents was a 1996 letter from Law to Geoghan in which Law wrote: “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness. On behalf of those you have served well, and in my own name, I would like to thank you.” By 1996, Geoghan had been taken out of four parishes in a row for child sex abuse.

Information that has surfaced a day after the release of the hundreds of church records includes:

  • The testimony of several priests that as early as 1966 Geoghan was accused of bringing altar boys into his rectory room.
  • Bishop Thomas V. Daily’s reply in a deposition to a question about why he didn’t take decisive action when told by a woman that Geoghan had abused her sons and nephews: “I am not a policeman; I am a shepherd.” Daily, who had been Geoghan’s supervisor, has since been promoted to head the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese.
  • A note written in 1989 by Bishop Robert J. Banks, who had also been a supervisor of Geoghan. Banks wrote down a psychiatrist’s verbal recommendation to him about Geoghan: “You better clip his wings before there is an explosion. ... You can’t afford to have him in a parish.” The psychiatrist’s name appearing above the quote is “Dr. Brennan.” Yet 18 months later, psychiatrist John Brennan would report, “I have known Father Geoghan since February 1980. There is no psychiatric contraindication to Fr. Geoghan’s pastoral work at this time.” In 1990, Banks would recommend Geoghan become a pastor. Banks has since been promoted to head the Green Bay, Wis., diocese.

After making his public apology, Law said, “However much I regret having assigned him, it is important to recall that John Geoghan was never assigned by me to a parish without psychiatric or medical assessments indicating that such assignments were appropriate.” However, since that apology, the credentials of two of the doctors Law relied on have come under heavy scrutiny. Geoghan’s general practitioner, Dr. Robert W. Mullins, has told the Globe that he has no specialized training in psychoanalysis, even though he did psychoanalyze Geoghan and cleared him to return to work. Another doctor, psychiatrist John Brennan, who in 1984 said Geoghan was “fully recovered,” had no experience treating sex offenders other than Geoghan. Further, he has been sued by two female patients for molesting them. One of the suits was settled for $100,000.

The day after the church records were released, Law gathered more than 500 Boston-diocesan priests for a 24-hour convocation that was closed to the press.

Fr. Walter F. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, Mass., attended the gathering on Jan 22 at the Park Plaza Hotel, located in downtown Boston.

‘Hard time for everyone’

“This is a hard time for everyone in Boston -- laity and clergy alike,” he said during a telephone interview.

“At the parish level I don’t see a great disaffection from the church,” he added. “People ask me about the finances. Our collections are up.

“While people are upset over the matter, they are able to make a distinction between the local church and their experience of parish worship,” he said, drawing a comparison to the way people feel about government. “They get mad at Congress, but not their congressman.”

Cuenin acknowledged, however, that the ongoing story “starts to wear on you.”

He added, “We need to talk about this in our churches. We have to name the elephant in the room. Everybody seems to feel better with acknowledgment.”

Another priest, who asked not to be identified, agreed with Cuenin’s assessment, “You can’t help but be affected by all of this,” he said. “Our feelings range from embarrassment to fear,” he added.

“Oh, my god, the parishioners are going to think this of me. Believe me, this stuff takes its toll. Anyone in ministry is subject to public opinion --more so than we would like to admit. If people express hostility toward you and you feel under attack and scrutiny, then your response in pastoral situations is much more guarded and defensive,” he said.

Several days earlier, Msgr. Peter V. Conley, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Norfolk, Mass., who is also the executive editor of The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston archdiocese, expressed a similar view.

“It’s disgusting. It is as if someone has splashed into a puddle and sprayed the mud onto us,” he told a reporter from the Boston Herald.

Reports of hostility

Reports of hostility to local priests have surfaced. One priest, for instance, experienced verbal abuse firsthand while taking a walk in his parish. Said another priest of his friend’s encounter: “He thought the motorist had stopped to ask for directions. But as the driver rolled down the window and passed by, he yelled, ‘You f---ing pervert.’ ”

Still other reports tell of more measured and deliberate reactions. One priest said that he heard accounts of parishioners -- furious over the scandal -- who clipped Globe news accounts, signed them, and returned the articles in response to the cardinal’s appeal for the capital campaign.

Meanwhile, Law continues to grieve and apologize. He did so at the convocation. “It’s a difficult time for him,” said Cuenin. “He was much more open yesterday [Jan. 22] than at the previous press conference [Jan 9].” There was a different tone, “genuine” and “more apologetic,” he said. “Yesterday, his sorrow really came through.”

Law continues to draw support from the clergy, although calls for his resignation continue. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson, for instance, called for Law to resign, citing Law’s loss of credibility as leader of the archdiocese.

In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal Jan. 18, Charles Molineaux, a member of the Knights of Malta, said Law should resign and took issue with Law’s reasoning that the church “has been on a learning curve” regarding pedophilia. “It was surprising to read,” wrote Molineaux, “that the church, after 2,000 years of experience with sin and recidivism, is on some sort of business-management learning curve about such ghastly and repeated conduct.”

“My resignation is not part of the solution as I see it,” Law said, according to the Globe.

“Priests greeted Law’s announcement that he would not resign with applause,” the Globe also reported.

Reactions among the laity are perhaps the strongest. One person, a Catholic college-educated woman with more than 20 years of lay ministry in the archdiocese, who asked that her name be withheld, summed up her reaction to the scandal this way: “The cardinal should resign without question. It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology or psychiatry to know that the rape of young children is categorically wrong. To say that we didn’t know at the time is a rather lame excuse.”

Referring to mothers of the alleged victims who wrote letters to the local hierarchy concerning Geoghan’s misbehavior, she said, “It seems to me that women were reaching out to the cardinal and his bishops. Once again the voices of women seem to have been ignored.”

But, she said, “what really makes me angry is that pastoral ministers who have been serving the church for their entire lives can be pulled out of such ministry at the drop of a hat -- just as teachers who have given their entire lives to teaching in the church are yanked out of classrooms and silenced for thinking freely. Yet, the hierarchy tolerates a known pedophile for three decades. Now something is seriously wrong here.”

Chuck Colbert is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass. Gill Donovan is NCR’s proofreader and a news writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002