National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

Geoghan murder raises old questions

Geoghan’s murder was news because of who he was -- a serial priest predator whose crimes were treated as minor offenses by Boston archdiocese officials.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, quoted in the South Bend Tribune, offered these insightful comments: “Geoghan was not only betrayed by the state for its failure to protect him [in prison], but by his own church because his behavior was known for years and the [archdiocese] did nothing about it.”

Sad and true.

What doesn’t make the headlines is that some form of the brutality inflicted on Geoghan occurs every day to thousands of the 2.1 million Americans who live behind local, state and federal prison bars. Because it is so common, because we have grown so inured to prison violence (an attitude of perhaps they deserve it?), because it is so far removed from the daily experience of the majority of Americans, it is easy to ignore.

Human Rights Watch reports that in 1998, the most recent year for which they have U.S. data, “59 inmates were killed by other inmates, and assaults, fights, and rapes left 6,750 inmates and 2,331 correctional staff injured seriously enough to require medical attention.” And those are just the reported incidents.

In Massachusetts, officials pledge to conduct a full investigation into the former priest’s murder. There is little indication of similar intensity in the other 49 states, or indeed, at the federal level.

In their November 2000 statement on the criminal justice system, the U.S. bishops reminded us that the vision of imprisonment as a path to rehabilitation has been lost in our society. “The evidence surrounds us: Sexual and physical abuse among inmates and sometimes by corrections officers, gang violence, racial division, the absence of educational opportunities and treatment programs, the increasing use of isolation units, and society’s willingness to sentence children to adult prisons -- all contributing to a high rate of recidivism. Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration, thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings.”

If Geoghan’s death shines a spotlight on the conditions in our prisons and the flaws in our justice system, if his demise prevents the murder or molestation of another inmate, then, perhaps, in some convoluted way, his death will not have been in vain.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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