Sex-abuse victims of former priest John Geoghan charge that Cardinal Bernard
Law was told of Geoghan’s criminal activity as early as 1984 but did
nothing to stop it. Now they want to know why.
By Kristen Lombardi
March 23, 2001
[See also the Boston Phoenix archive of other
articles on the crisis by Kristen Lombardi.]
ASK MARK KEANE who orally raped him when he was a teenage boy, and he’ll
answer: Father John Geoghan. Ask him who should bear the cross
for this heinous act, and he’ll answer: Cardinal Bernard Law.
Law, Keane believes, had direct knowledge that Geoghan, who worked in
the Archdiocese of Boston from 1962 to 1993, was molesting children. And
Law, Keane alleges, didn’t just let the priest keep working; he
allowed Geoghan to stay at parishes where he enjoyed daily contact with
children — one of whom was Keane.
|GROUND ZERO: the campus of the Boston
archdiocese in Brighton. Those allegedly abused by former priest John
Geoghan claim that the church bureaucracy is engaged in a multi-year
cover-up of the charges. Photo by Stephen Sunshine.
Keane’s encounter with Geoghan took place at the Waltham Boys and
Girls Club some 16 years ago, not long after Law, newly appointed the
archbishop and cardinal of the Boston archdiocese, had arrived in town.
Keane was about 15 years old. He was a quiet, introverted kid who must
have come across as the perfect victim. In a back hallway of the club,
behind the boys’ locker room, Geoghan told him to strip off his
clothes, Keane says. Then he ordered him to perform oral sex. For the
former Waltham resident, who was raised Catholic, the one-time encounter
was doubly devastating. He had been molested by a priest — a man
who speaks for God. It was a violation of the soul as well as the body.
'GEOGHAN may be a sick, twisted person, but he's sick,' says alleged
victim Mark Keane. 'In my mind, the fact that his superiors, people
as powerful as Cardinal Law, could take steps to hide and protect
a pedophile is a much worse crime.' Photo by Stephen Sunshine.
Today, the question that haunts Keane isn’t why Father John Geoghan
— the now-defrocked priest suspected of fondling, assaulting, and
raping hundreds of children over three decades — did what he did.
It’s how he managed to get away with it. Keane, 31, cannot believe
that Church superiors were unaware of the abuse. After all, others who
were allegedly assaulted by Geoghan claim in court documents that their
parents had complained to Geoghan’s superiors about his behavior
with children as far back as 1973 — that’s 12 years before
the then-priest allegedly molested Keane. And court records in Keane’s
case against Law charge that the cardinal was warned about Geoghan’s
sexual improprieties in September 1984 — just months before the
alleged abuse took place. Law (who, through archdiocese spokesperson John
Walsh, declined to be interviewed) has denied in court motions that he
knew that Geoghan was sexually abusing children and failed to take appropriate
It’s not known what, if any, facts support the charge that Cardinal
Law knew about Geoghan’s criminal activities — the pertinent
documents have been ordered sealed until trial. On January 5, after reviewing
a motion and evidence brought by Keane and 24 other plaintiffs allegedly
molested by Geoghan after September 1984, Suffolk Superior Court judge
James McHugh ruled that Law could be named a defendant in these civil
lawsuits currently pending against Geoghan. The Phoenix spoke
with two of the 25 plaintiffs after contacting Boston attorney Mitchell
Garabedian, who represents all 25 people. Only two plaintiffs, one of
whom was Keane, were willing to speak publicly about their experiences.
“I blame the Church for what happened to me,” the gaunt,
edgy Keane explains, “and I hold Cardinal Law responsible for my
All told, 84 lawsuits are currently pending against Geoghan. Five bishops
— all of whom, as auxiliary Boston bishops, had supervisory authority
over Geoghan at some point in his 31-year career— have also been
named in many of these civil suits: Robert Banks, currently bishop of
Green Bay, Wisconsin; Thomas Daily, bishop of Brooklyn; Alfred Hughes,
bishop of Baton Rouge; John McCormack, bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire;
and William Murphy, auxiliary bishop of Boston. To some extent, these
cases represent a second wave of accusations against Geoghan, who is believed
to be one of the most insatiable child molesters uncovered in the ongoing
investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic priests. To date, the archdiocese
has reportedly paid between $2.5 million and $10 million to settle 50
civil suits filed against Geoghan, as well as against Church officials.
The Phoenix spoke with three of the victims from the first wave
of lawsuits, two of whom have settled with the archdiocese for undisclosed
sums of money.
|A SUPERIOR COURT judge ruled that there
was enough evidence in the lawsuits against Geoghan (above) to sue
the cardinal also. As one observer notes, 'Suing Law is almost like
suing the pope.' Photo by Stephen Sunshine.
In addition to the 84 civil lawsuits now pending, Geoghan also faces
criminal charges: two counts each of child rape and child assault in Suffolk
County, and one count of child assault in Middlesex County. Those abuses
took place within the last 20 years, which means that they fall within
the statute of limitations for prosecuting criminal charges of rape and
assault. The names of these victims are withheld in court documents. The
oldest case dates back to December 1980 — well before Law was allegedly
told of Geoghan’s activities. In that case, a Jamaica Plain man
charges that Geoghan assaulted him in the early 1980s, when he was about
seven years old. The second case charges one instance of abuse of an 11-year-old
Waltham boy in 1992; he would be about 20 years old today. The last criminal
case charges two counts of sexual assault on a 10-year-old Weymouth boy
in 1995 and 1996; that boy is about 16 today. It’s not known whether
the alleged victims in the two criminal cases from the 1990s plan to sue
Law after the criminal trials take place. The first criminal trial is
slated to begin September 4 at Suffolk Superior Court.
Law is the first Church official to be accused of
such negligence while serving as a cardinal. In 1996, Cardinal Roger Mahony
of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was sued for negligence after one of
his priests, Father Ted Llanos, was accused of sexually assaulting nine
children. At the time of Llanos’s alleged abuse, Mahoney was the
bishop of Stockton, California, where Llanos worked. That suit fell apart
in 1997 after Llanos killed himself.
|'This has been a dirty little secret the Church
has desperately tried to keep quiet,' charges Stephen Lyons, a Boston
attorney who has successfully litigated six cases of clerical sex
abuse against the Boston archdiocese.
Law, a high-ranking official within the Catholic Church, is one of just
eight cardinals in the United States. His boss is Pope John Paul II. As
head of the fourth-largest diocese in the country, Law wields substantial
power. He is a senior member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
(NCCB), a canonical body that makes high-level recommendations for the
American Catholic hierarchy on pastoral practices, interreligious affairs,
and government policy. One Boston attorney who handles clergy sexual-abuse
cases says that “suing Law is almost like suing the pope.”
Still, those familiar with the scope of Geoghan’s behavior are
surprised it’s taken so long for Law to face legal action. “This
has been a dirty little secret the Church has desperately tried to keep
quiet,” charges Stephen Lyons, a Boston attorney. Lyons is best
known for defending David and Ginger Twitchell, the Christian Science
couple whose child died after receiving inadequate medical care. But he
has earned national recognition for his legal work involving clergy sexual
abuse. He has successfully litigated more than six lawsuits against the
Boston archdiocese and other dioceses nationwide, and says he’s
“well aware” of evidence implicating the cardinal —
evidence that he cannot reveal because of confidentiality orders. (Lyons
has never handled a Geoghan case, nor has he handled a lawsuit against
the cardinal.) “As far as I’m concerned,” Lyons says,
“it’s extraordinary Law hasn't been named a defendant
[in the Geoghan cases] before.”
THE PROBLEM of pedophilic priests first seeped into public consciousness
in 1984, when a Catholic priest named Gilbert Gauthe was accused of fondling,
assaulting, and sodomizing dozens of boys in Lafayette, Louisiana. Soon
after the Gauthe affair made headlines, other lawsuits alleging child
molestation by priests were filed across the country. In 1985, according
to Father Thomas Doyle, a canonical lawyer who at the time worked for
the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, the NCCB — of which Cardinal
Law was already a member — was quietly briefed on the extent of
pedophilia among the clergy.
Eight years later, in 1992, the issue hit home in Boston when Massachusetts
priest James Porter was charged with sexually abusing 28 children —
both boys and girls — in three Bristol County parishes. He was found
guilty and sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison; this year, he will come
up for parole for the third time. (Many of Porter’s victims appeared
at the State House on March 15 to testify in favor of a bill that would
give victims more influence at parole hearings.) The Porter story blew
wide open after one of his victims, Frank Fitzpatrick Jr., called the
former priest, who had since married and fathered four children, to confront
him with memories of the assault. Fitzpatrick then taped Porter’s
confession — the broadcast of which convinced many skeptics that
the allegations were true.
Change of Address
Tracing Father John Geoghan
1962 John "Jack" Geoghan graduates from
St. John's Seminary, in Brighton, and is ordained a priest.
1962-1966 Geoghan is assigned to Blessed Sacrament
Church in Saugus.
1967 Geoghan is reassigned to St. Bernard's Church
1967-1974 Geoghan is reassigned to St. Paul's Church
1974-1980 Geoghan leaves St. Paul's and is transferred
to St. Andrew's Church in Forest Hills.
1980 Geoghan is placed on temporary "sick
leave" for an unspecified period of time.
1981-1984 Geoghan resumes his priestly duties;
he is assigned to St. Brendan's Church in Dorchester.
1984-1993 Geoghan is reassigned to St. Julia's
Church in Weston.
1993 Geoghan retires from active service in the
1995 Geoghan is placed on sick leave.
1996 The first of 134 lawsuits alleging sexual
molestation are filed against Geoghan.
1998 Geoghan is laicized and stripped of all priestly
duties and privileges.
Source of information: The Official Catholic Directory.
Research by Brianna Pontremoli.
During the investigation and trial, Fitzpatrick, among other victims,
charged that top Church authorities at the Diocese of Fall River had known
about Porter’s behavior all along. None of the accusations was ever
proven true. But scrutiny of the Church grew so intense during this period
that Cardinal Law infamously blasted reporters for focusing on what he
termed “the faults of a few”: “We deplore that.... By
all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the
Globe.” He also aggressively asserted that there were no
additional cases of sexual misconduct by priests, other than those brought
to authorities, at the Boston archdiocese. At the time Law made these
remarks, Geoghan had already been placed on temporary “sick leave”
at least once, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
This leave of absence, as alleged in court records, followed a complaint
of abuse against Geoghan by one mother of an alleged victim from Jamaica
'Oh, Father Geoghan.
He is well known in the circles of those who treat priest pedophiles.
He is notorious because he has been treated by so many people, at
nearly every psychiatric hospital in the country.'
—A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former monk who
counseled sexually disordered priests in the 1970s and 1980s
Porter’s prison sentence — and the tape of his shocking confession
— turned his case into a national scandal. And Tom Economus, who
directs Link Up, a Chicago-based advocacy group for victims of clergy
sexual abuse, ranks the Geoghan scandal as one of the country’s
“top 10 most notorious” cases of child molestation by priests.
Says Economus, “There have been so many victims, over so many years,
and so many lawsuits.” All of which makes it hard for Economus —
and many observers — to believe that Law could have remained in
the dark about what Geoghan was doing to the children of Boston’s
Years before the allegations about Geoghan became public in 1996, his
name was familiar within the community of caregivers who treat pedophilic
priests. A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former monk who counseled
sexually disordered priests in the 1970s and 1980s at the Seton Psychiatric
Institute and the Johns Hopkins University Sexual Disorders Clinic, recalls:
“Oh, Father Geoghan. He is well known in the circles of
those who treat priest pedophiles. He is notorious because he has been
treated by so many people, at nearly every psychiatric hospital in the
Sipe, who wrote A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy
(Brunner/Mazel, 1990), an analysis of celibacy and the priesthood based
on 1500 of his cases, estimates that two percent of American Catholic
priests are pedophiles (adults who sexually abuse children), while another
four percent are drawn to adolescents. (According to Georgetown University’s
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there are 45,699 Catholic
priests in the US today. If Sipe’s estimates are correct, then 914
clergymen are pedophiles. Another 1828 are sexually attracted to teenagers
— and act on it.) Geoghan easily fits the pedophile profile, Sipe
says; he maintains that Church superiors had checked the former priest
into at least three sexual-abuse-treatment facilities: the Hartford, Connecticut–based
Institute of Living; the Silver Springs, Maryland–based Saint Luke
Institute; and the now-defunct Baltimore, Maryland–based Seton Institute.
One such check-in, says Sipe, occurred as early as 1972. Men like Geoghan,
who are attracted to young boys, “can be difficult to treat,”
Sipe explains. “Their brand of pedophilia is well embedded.”
For these pedophiles, their sexual compulsion is fundamental to their
personalities, much as the need for alcohol is to an alcoholic. Sipe adds,
“Anyone who practices his compulsion for a long period of time,
as Geoghan is alleged to have done, is certainly harder to deal with.”
If Geoghan did, in fact, undergo treatment (his personnel records are
sealed pending trial, and no one connected with the lawsuits against him
would confirm his treatment history independent of Sipe’s assertions),
it would indeed have been likely that the Catholic Church sent him to
Saint Luke, which is the foremost treatment facility in the US for priests
with sexual problems. Other centers used by the Church today include the
Johns Hopkins clinic, the Institute of Living, and the Menninger Foundation
in Topeka, Kansas, according to those who treat pedophilic priests.
For the most part, the regimen for treating pedophilia involves individual
and group therapy to break down denial and a 12-step program, similar
to the Alcoholics Anonymous model, to help control sexual addictions.
With particularly tough cases, treatment may include such drugs as Depo-Provera,
a synthetic compound akin to the female hormone progesterone, which lowers
the sex drive. Aversive techniques, including shock therapy, have also
If Geoghan was, in fact, a patient at any of these treatment facilities,
his stay would most likely have been paid for by the Boston archdiocese.
Three sources familiar with the treatment of pedophilic priests say that
the priests’ bishops, who have direct authority over them, check
them in and that the diocese pays for treatment expenses. This, naturally,
raises the question of how Church superiors, including Law, could have
failed to know about Geoghan’s pedophilia. It also raises the question
of why the former priest was not reassigned to a ministry that would have
minimized his contact with children. Fred Berlin, the founder of the Johns
Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, explains that pedophilic patients are
closely monitored after being discharged from a program. Often they’re
asked to return for weekly visits for as little as six months or as long
as five years after completing treatment. Meetings are set up with the
local bishops who supervise problem priests, and relapse-prevention strategies
are ironed out. Berlin, who has advised the NCCB on treating pedophilia,
says that a clergyman with strong pedophilic tendencies “is advised
not to go near kids.” Pedophile priests, he adds, “should
be reassigned to a prison ministry, for instance.... Any unnecessary exposure
to children should be avoided at all costs.” Though pedophilia cannot
be cured, he says, it can be successfully treated if such after-care procedures
Father Doyle, now an Air Force chaplain, has testified for plaintiffs
in clergy sexual-abuse lawsuits. He claims that Geoghan “flunked
out” of at least “two or three” pedophile-treatment
programs in which he had been enrolled. Although Doyle is careful to say
that he has not seen Geoghan’s treatment history, he says he’s
spoken with “knowledgeable people” who confirm that it has
been long — and ultimately unsuccessful. Flunking out, Doyle explains,
means that Geoghan had relapsed after completing an inpatient stint of
therapy. Sipe also says Geoghan had been through several treatment programs.
“Somebody must have thought that he needed treatment again,”
he adds. In a separate interview, he says, “Geoghan is what you’d
call a predator. He scouts for his victims.... This guy is dedicated to
finding young sexual partners.” Yet again, this raises the question:
why, if this did happen, was this priest repeatedly assigned to parishes
populated with children?
JOHN “JACK” Geoghan (who declined through his sister Catherine
to be interviewed for this article) first swept into the lives of the
Catholic faithful in 1962. Then a newly minted priest in his early 20s,
Geoghan delighted parishioners at Blessed Sacrament Church in Saugus,
where he served as a priest until 1966. Adults were impressed by this
charismatic curate, who packed the church during Mass. He especially exhibited
an interest in the kids, supervising the altar boys and launching a youth
|JIM SACCO was one of six siblings -- five
brothers and a sister -- who settled a lawsuit against the archdiocese
in 1998. 'He had different patterns with different kids.' he recalls
of Geoghan. 'With us, [the abuse] started in the bedroom. With other
victims, it was on car rides. His big thing was taking kids for ice
cream.' Photo by Stephen Sunshine.
“Everyone at the church was thrilled by him,” recalls one
former Saugus resident who claims to have been fondled by Geoghan from
ages eight to 12. “People would say they were jealous that my family
got so much attention from this nice, youthful priest.”
Geoghan enjoyed enthusiastic receptions throughout his 31-year career
at the Boston archdiocese. From one parish community to another —
Saugus, Concord, Hingham, Forest Hills, Dorchester, and Weston (see “Change
of Address,” left) — parents opened up their homes and hearts
to the likable priest. Children admired and even idolized this larger-than-life
figure. Short, trim, brimming with energy, Geoghan could light up a room
full of kids with little more than his unmistakably high-pitched voice.
'PRIESTS WERE supposed to be good, holy men,' says Patrick McSorely.
For him, talking about what Geoghan allegedly did is like 'bringing
skeletons out of the closet.' Photo by Stephen Sunshine.
“He was a happy-go-lucky guy,” remembers Tony Muzzi Jr.,
who has charged Geoghan with molesting him in Hingham in the late 1960s
and early 1970s. “He was always smiling, laughing. I thought he
was funny in the beginning.”
“My family just loved Father Geoghan,” says Patrick McSorley,
a Hyde Park telecommunications specialist who says Geoghan molested him
in 1986, and who is one of the 25 plaintiffs suing Cardinal Law. McSorley’s
older siblings met the former clergyman while attending St. Andrew’s
School in Forest Hills, where he worked from 1974 to 1980. “He’d
go out in the schoolyard and visit all the kids. Everyone adored him,”
But it wasn’t long before an odd side to Geoghan’s personality
emerged. He developed a habit of stopping by parishioners’ homes
in the late-evening hours — just in time to tuck the children into
bed as the parents tidied the kitchen after dinner. He liked to wrestle
the boys, or rub their backs, or settle them down in his lap. Sometimes,
he offered to check the boys’ bodies for proper development.
Reviews of the 84 civil-suit records and lengthy interviews with five
of Geoghan’s alleged victims show that Geoghan began sexually abusing
parishioners’ sons — and, in some cases, their daughters —
almost as soon as he would arrive at a newly assigned parish. The assaults
ranged from caressing a child’s behind to fondling the genitalia
to more aggressive behavior — such as orally raping boys as young
as seven. For some victims, like Keane, the encounters with Geoghan were
one-time ordeals. Others, though, were attacked repeatedly for as long
as Geoghan remained assigned to a parish.
The victims’ stories sound eerily similar. Many cases involved
prepubescent boys who lacked strong father figures — their fathers
had died, for instance, or frequently traveled on business trips. Often
the alleged abuse took place in their own homes, in their own beds. Other
times, Geoghan took children out for a day of fun — driving them
to the beach, to campgrounds, and to the local ice-cream shop —
only to pull over on a dimly lit street once he had them alone and fondle
them in the car. “He had different patterns with different kids,”
recalls Jim Sacco, now 46. Sacco is one of six siblings — five brothers
and a sister — all of whom have publicly charged Geoghan with repeatedly
molesting them during his ministry at Blessed Sacrament in the early 1960s.
The family settled its lawsuit against the archdiocese in April 1998;
a confidentiality agreement prohibits them from revealing the amount.
“With us, [the abuse] started in the bedroom,” Sacco adds.
“With other victims, it was on car rides. His big thing was taking
kids for ice cream.”
As Geoghan grew older, it seems, he also grew more brazen in his sexual
advances. While assigned to St. Julia’s Church in Weston in the
mid 1980s, he made a name for himself at the nearby Waltham Boys and Girls
Club because of his penchant for strutting around without clothes.
“He was referred to as ‘the Naked Guy,’ ” Keane
explains. “He would walk down a hallway from the boys’ locker
room to the weight room — in plain sight — in the nude. Once,
he came out naked, carrying a white towel. We thought it was hilarious.”
Those who met the priest at the Waltham club say that he used to swim
up to children in the pool and fondle them. At least one victim has accused
Geoghan of molesting him in 1996 in the vestry of St. Anne’s Church
in Readville — before Geoghan, then retired, was scheduled to perform
a baptism ceremony.
Most victims never mentioned their ordeals to anyone — not to older
brothers who shared the same bedroom, not to younger cousins who went
on weekly outings with the priest. Instead, they lived with the haunting
conviction that they were the only ones. Some couldn’t have articulated
their experiences even if they’d wanted to.
“I cannot explain how or why or what I was thinking as a child,”
says Sacco, who kept his experience hidden from his family for more than
20 years. “I look back and ask myself, ‘How could I let this
happen?’ The only thing I can think of is fear.”
Geoghan, after all, was a priest; and, as McSorley puts it, “priests
were supposed to be good, holy men.” As Catholics, victims like
McSorley had been taught that priests speak for God. As children, they
often thought that priests possessed godlike powers. Who would believe
that a priest — a priest — could do something so
Those who hinted at the assaults tended to be dismissed. Muzzi still
remembers the day his cousin, another alleged victim from Hingham, half-jokingly
told his mother that Father Geoghan liked to touch the boys. “She
got all bent out of shape,” Muzzi recounts. “She was upset.
She was screaming, ‘How could you talk about a priest like that?’
” After witnessing his aunt’s reaction, Muzzi figured there
was no point in telling his own parents. “In their eyes,”
he explains, “Geoghan was like a movie star.... They would never
have believed me.”
But not every parent reacted to such news with disbelief. According to
court records, at least two mothers took their concerns about Geoghan’s
activities to Church officials at various points during his decades-long
tenure. One mother, formerly of Melrose, says that she approached Father
Paul Miceli at St. Mary’s Parish back in 1973 and voiced her suspicions
that Geoghan was molesting all four of her sons. According to the family’s
pending civil suit, Miceli, who now heads the ministerial-personnel department
at the Boston archdiocese, reassured the mother that Geoghan (a friend
of the mother’s family who was stationed at St. Paul’s in
Hingham at the time) would undergo treatment, and that he would never
be a clergyman again.
In a court deposition, the mother testified that Father Miceli brought
her and her four sons into a private room at St. Mary’s, where they
proceeded to tell him about Geoghan’s alleged assaults.
“Father Miceli was very, very compassionate,” the mother
said. “He understood our hurt, our confusion.... But the resolution
was ... to tell the boys to try not to think about this. ‘Bad as
it was,’ he said, ‘just try. Don’t think about it. It
will never happen again.’ ”
The woman continued: “He prayed with all of us that, you know,
God will watch over us.... He said, ‘This is a horrible, terrible
thing.... It’s a disgrace,’ he said. ‘Let me take care
of this. Will you trust me and let me handle this?’ ” (Through
archdiocese spokesperson John Walsh, Miceli declined to be interviewed.
He has been named as a defendant in 57 of the 84 pending lawsuits.)
But seven years after Miceli’s promise that Geoghan would never
get away with molesting children again, and after the archdiocese had
reassigned Geoghan from Hingham to St. Andrew’s Church in Forest
Hills, another mother made the same complaint. According to court records,
the Jamaica Plain mother allegedly confided in the Reverend John Thomas,
then the pastor at her neighborhood parish. She told Thomas, now retired
and living in Framingham, that Geoghan was sexually abusing her sons and
nephews, who ranged in age from six to 11. (Thomas did not return two
phone calls seeking comment.)
By 1980 — after transferring Geoghan to four parishes in nearly
20 years — Church authorities had evidently grown concerned enough
about the priest’s behavior to alter their standard course of action.
That year, in fact, Geoghan was removed from St. Andrew’s Church
and placed on temporary “sick leave” for the first time. In
1981, he returned to the Boston archdiocese and resumed his priestly duties
— first at St. Brendan’s Church in Dorchester, and then at
St. Julia’s Church in Weston, where he stayed until retiring from
active priestly duty in 1993.
Geoghan continued to sexually assault children for two more years until
1995, when his superiors put him on sick leave yet again. Three more years
would pass before Cardinal Law finally defrocked Geoghan — or “laicized”
him, meaning that Geoghan was returned to layman’s status —
thereby stripping him not only of the right to celebrate Mass, but also
of the collar that he’d long used to get close to children. The
laicization occurred two years after a civil lawsuit — the first,
as it turned out, of many — was filed in 1996 in Suffolk Superior
Court by a Waltham mother whose three sons number among Geoghan’s
For those awaiting their day in court, the extent of Geoghan’s
crimes — which spanned his lengthy career — boggles the mind.
Says Keane, “Geoghan went from parish to parish to parish, leaving
behind, at every step, a trail of damaged and molested kids.”
TO THIS day, people whom Geoghan allegedly victimized are still stepping
out of the shadows, identifying themselves to relatives, lawyers, and
fellow victims. Phil Saviano, who heads the Jamaica Plain–based
chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, continues to
receive calls. “Just in these past few months I heard from another
Geoghan victim who hasn’t been [reported on] in the news media yet,”
he says. “I’m sure there are more people like that out there.”
Some victims — like Sacco, who has never forgotten the abuse (“It’s
been in my head every single day,” he says) — were drawn forward
soon after the first allegations surfaced in the press. But for others,
it took years of seeing Geoghan’s face and name plastered across
newspapers and TV screens before they could accept their childhood traumas.
Even then, many, like McSorley, kept their newfound memories to themselves.
“I had a hard time putting what happened into words,” he explains.
“It’s like bringing skeletons out of the closet.”
For victims of sexual abuse, their wounds, like scar tissue, never completely
disappear. Typically, they experience what Tom Gutheil, a Boston-based
forensic psychiatrist, calls “the full spectrum of reaction.”
Following an abusive encounter — and, in some cases, for years afterward
— victims can become depressed, withdrawn, anxious, insecure, angry,
guilt-ridden, and paranoid. “It varies for each victim,” Gutheil
says. “It’s possible to walk away relatively unscathed, but
that’s one end of the spectrum. The other can be suicide.”
Perhaps even more poignantly, victims of clergy sexual abuse suffer from
a distinct sense of betrayal, one that can linger with them for decades.
Being sexually abused by a priest, as Gutheil notes, “shakes your
faith in your faith, and that’s quite damaging to victims —
emotionally and spiritually.”
Many of Geoghan’s adult accusers have displayed a textbook reaction
to sexual abuse. Right after what he calls “the incident,”
Keane, for example, became a violent teenager. He hung with the wrong
crowd. He bought a gun. He made bombs. His schoolwork suffered so much
that he had to repeat a grade.
“I didn’t realize the connection then,” says Keane,
who blocked his memory of Geoghan for 15 years until 1999, when he and
his wife, Ann, were taking a class about child abuse in preparation for
becoming foster parents. During the class, Keane studied cases of children
who had been sexually abused — cases that ended up triggering his
memory. “Now,” he adds, “my behavior [as a teen], it
all makes sense.”
There are those, like McSorley, 26, whose battles have been waged internally
— quietly but wrenchingly. For years now, he has suffered from low
self-esteem. He’s become a shy, anxious person who cannot sit for
more than 10 minutes without pulling at his pant legs, wringing his hands,
and running his fingers through his cropped black hair. Unable to trust,
McSorley has almost no close friends. “Sometimes,” he explains,
“I break out in a sweat meeting people. I feel all nervous. I feel
very out of place.”
Then there are those, like Sacco, for whom the Geoghan legacy resonates
in more subtle yet equally insidious ways. In the two years since his
settlement, Sacco has led an outwardly healthy life: he works as a banker
in Amherst, New Hampshire; he lives in a spacious house; he has a loving
family. But he is afraid to be overly affectionate with his three daughters
— for fear that he may harm them. He is afraid to let his children
be near adults — for fear that others may hurt them. And, as a survivor
of abuse, he is afraid he may never fully recover. “I feel I’m
not right,” Sacco says. “Something was taken from me —
my innocence, my childhood — and it will never be fixed.”
These Geoghan victims have more in common than the effects of trauma.
Today, they share a profound sense of bitterness and rage against the
Catholic Church for what one of them calls “a huge web of deceitful
priests” who placed the welfare of a clergyman above that of their
parishioners’ children. How else, they ask, can they interpret the
fact that Geoghan, with his six transfers, received so many second chances?
Or that at least two mothers complained of his behavior early on —
before victims like McSorley were even born — to no avail? “The
more I find out, the angrier I get,” Muzzi says. “His superiors
let [Geoghan] roam free with flocks of kids for years. That’s like
handing a murderer a gun and saying, ‘Here, go have fun.’
Victims are equally embittered over the way the Boston archdiocese has
handled the scandal. On the one hand, they say, Church authorities have
made an outward show of repentance. In June 1998, for example, the archdiocese
offered a ceremonial apology to all of Geoghan’s victims, in which
Cardinal Law recognized the shortcomings of such a statement: “Unfortunately,
an apology does not have the capacity to erase the painful memory,”
Law wrote in the Pilot, a newspaper published by the Boston archdiocese,
“nor does it heal and restore, nor does it overcome anger and resentment.”
The archdiocese then held a series of “healing Masses,” at
which priests led parishioners in a collective Act of Contrition for Geoghan’s
misdeeds. Most important, it announced Geoghan’s laicization, a
rare punitive measure that was reported in press coverage at that time
as a first for the 126-year-old archdiocese. (It is unclear whether the
archdiocese has laicized other priests; spokesperson Walsh says the archdiocese
does not make public its records of priest laicizations.)
Victims, though, say that when the Church has dealt with them privately,
officials have been anything but contrite. Once the pain of his repressed
memories came flooding back in 1997, Muzzi called the Boston archdiocese
seeking relief. He wanted answers: why had Geoghan traveled from parish
to parish for so long? Why was he still employed? But instead of
giving him what he wanted, Muzzi remembers, “the Church suggested
I seek legal counsel. It was like hitting a stone wall.”
His frustration is echoed by Sacco, who, despite receiving his own settlement,
remains critical of the archdiocese. “The focus of the Church’s
response is never the victims,” he says. For all the public apologies
and ceremonial acts, Sacco notes, the Catholic Church still manages to
fight the victims — both inside and outside the courtroom. In 1998,
Cardinal Law formed an advisory committee made up of victims to address
clergy sexual abuse. Yet the committee — whose formation was required
by Sacco’s own settlement — met just five times in 1999. Today,
that group no longer exists.
Even the Church’s positive steps, such as defrocking Geoghan, can
come across as little more than public relations. Take the 1998 apology,
which was issued the day after Geoghan’s laicization. In the nine-paragraph
statement, Cardinal Law devoted just two sentences to “those who
have been so victimized, as well as their families.” Compare that
to the three he spent praising good priests, of whom he wrote: “[They]
inspire me by their integrity, their zeal, and their fidelity. So easily
can they be taken for granted, for they are always there for us. The misconduct
of a few in their ranks is a burden for them all.”
As Sacco himself describes it: “It’s a pile of crap.”
TO SAY that sexual-abuse scandals like the one involving Geoghan have
affected the Roman Catholic Church seems an understatement. The Church
has spent anywhere from $850 million to more than $1 billion in legal
fees, settlements, and treatment expenses for pedophilic priests, according
to attorneys and victim-support groups. But the price the Church has paid
in broken trust is incalculable. Church superiors, once pillars of morality
whose judgment was never second-guessed, have had to defend their practices,
and even to defend themselves.
|In 1999, Law said that 'were we able to put
ourselves back 10, 20, 30 years ... with the knowledge we have now,'
the Church would have handled the Geoghan cases differently. But evidence
that Law had been given a detailed report about clergy sexual abuse
in 1985 raises questions about his credibility.
The issue has also alienated many within the ranks of the Catholic clergy.
Father Doyle, the Air Force chaplain, has become one of the few clergymen
nationwide to speak out publicly against current Church policy. He criticizes
the hierarchy for what he calls “the knee-jerk reaction of bishops
to try to cover up priests with sexual disorders.” Back in 1985,
in fact, Doyle co-authored and then presented a 126-page report, “Meeting
the Problem of Sexual Dysfunction in a Responsible Way,” to all
American bishops, including Cardinal Law. The document outlined the growing
sexual-abuse lawsuits and warned that the problem would escalate if the
Church failed to take certain steps, such as tracking reports of abuse
and establishing mandatory, uniform policies for all 188 US dioceses.
But the report, Doyle explains, “was summarily shelved.”
Interestingly, Law was quoted in the Boston Herald on December
3, 1999, as saying that “were we able to put ourselves back 10,
20, 30 years ... with the knowledge we have now,” the Church would
have handled the Geoghan cases differently. But evidence that Law had
been given a detailed report about clergy sexual abuse and how to manage
it more than 15 years ago — in 1985 — raises questions about
his credibility. Or, as Keane puts it: “We come to find out that
the cardinal had lied.”
Doyle maintains that the Catholic Church has long managed itself much
as a large corporation would. Clergy sexual-abuse scandals, he says, are
perceived as bad for the Church’s image, internal morale, and fiscal
stability. “My naive and silly way of thinking,” Doyle adds,
“is that we are not a normal corporation. We are a spiritual institution,
and our first priority should be the victims.”
Of course, he recognizes that clergy sexual abuse has severely damaged
the priesthood — so much so that many parishioners despise the clergy.
“I cannot tell you how many people have said they still believe
in God, but won’t go near a Catholic church,” he explains.
As a priest, he adds, “I feel profoundly ashamed and embarrassed....
I can no longer believe in the sanctity of the institutional Church.”
At the chancery of the Boston archdiocese, not many are likely to share
such sentiments — publicly, anyway. Still, the weight of this issue
— and the toll of cases like Geoghan’s — can be heard
in the sobering voice of archdiocese spokesperson John Walsh, who, while
not a priest, admits: “The problem [of clergy sexual abuse] has
wounded the Church.”
Walsh refuses to comment on the Geoghan cases, including those that involve
Cardinal Law. “It’s our policy not to discuss any pending
litigation,” he explains.
Speaking generally, however, he says that the Catholic Church, particularly
the Boston archdiocese, has changed “dramatically” as a result
of clergy sexual-abuse scandals. Whereas once the Church had failed to
recognize the “damage wrought” by sexual abuse, Walsh explains,
there are now procedures in place to review every complaint. In Boston,
the archdiocese instituted its policies in 1993, not long after the Porter
cases made headlines. A key policy element mandates an established review
board, made up of priests, lawyers, psychiatrists, and social workers,
to evaluate allegations. The nine-member board investigates every charge
by interviewing the victims and the priests; it also offers treatment
to victims. If a charge of sexual misconduct is found to be true, the
archdiocese vows to permanently remove that priest from active service.
“These things mark a greater openness on the part of the Church,”
Walsh says. “Our experience has been hard won, our learning curve
steep.” (Just how many priests the archdiocese has discharged under
this procedure is unknown because, Walsh says, “we do not comment
on the dispositions of cases.”)
Walsh insists that, although it’s not above criticism, the Boston
archdiocese under Law’s tenure has made a “good-faith effort”
to confront clergy sexual abuse, rather than deny and cover up its existence.
“Our whole posture should not be cavalier, and I don’t think
we have been,” he says. “Our focus needs to be and has been
on the victims.”
But then, Walsh knows that in the eyes of the victims, the Catholic Church
may never be able to atone for what he describes as the “terrible
tragedy” they’ve endured. He also knows the Church may never
be able to convince them that it has tried. As Walsh puts it, “Could
we ever look someone who has endured this tragedy in the eye and say,
‘We’ve done enough?’ I don’t think so.”
Indeed, perhaps the only way the Church can make amends for this issue
is through the courts. Among Geoghan’s accusers, there is now an
overwhelming sense of elation that Law, too, is being sued. For them,
the 25 lawsuits against the cardinal represent a chance to learn the truth.
How else, they ask, will they discover the facts, if not by listening
to Law on the witness stand? Only trial will reveal who, if anyone, within
the archdiocese knew about the former priest’s sexual improprieties.
Only trial will confirm what many suspect: that Geoghan’s superiors
turned a blind eye to his behavior while shuffling him among six parishes.
“How will we ever know for sure what went on with Geoghan unless
[the cases] go to trial?” asks Saviano of Survivors Network. “Thank
God someone is trying to hold the Church accountable.”
Trial, however, could prove to be a dangerous thing for the archdiocese,
especially if there is evidence that links Law to the Geoghan cases. So
far, the archdiocese’s attorneys have taken an aggressive approach.
They have filed three motions to dismiss these cases, arguing that determining
whether Church superiors properly supervised Geoghan would force the court
to examine canon law, which is shielded by the First Amendment. They have
also tried to seal from the public all documents and court motions related
to the Law allegations. Both moves were shot down by Judge McHugh. (Wilson
Rogers Jr., who represents the archdiocese, did not return repeated phone
calls seeking comment.)
Given the Catholic Church’s reputation for fighting such lawsuits
as if pursuing “trench warfare, all hammer and tongs” (as
one lawyer puts it), some observers predict that the Law allegations will
never be put to a jury — thereby leaving unanswered the question
of whether the archdiocese has protected sexually abusive priests. Explains
Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who handles clergy sexual-abuse claims,
“The archdiocese is going to do all it can to beat down these cases.”
Economus, of Link Up, concurs. “It’d be so damaging to the
Catholic Church to allow a cardinal to go on trial,” he says. “The
Boston archdiocese will do and pay whatever it takes to make sure Law
isn’t affected by all this.”
How the legal drama will unfold remains to be seen, of course. But for
the 25 Law accusers, whatever the future brings cannot compare to what
the past has dealt. The Geoghan legacy, after all, has consumed much of
their lives. So no matter what these civil lawsuits yield — be it
money, be it Law’s retirement — nothing can erase the pain
of believing that Geoghan’s superiors might have chosen to protect
a man of the cloth rather than defenseless children.
In the words of Keane himself, “Geoghan may be a sick, twisted
person, but he is sick. In my mind, the fact that his superiors, people
as powerful as Cardinal Law, could take steps to hide and protect a pedophile
is a much worse crime.”
Kristen Lombardi can be reached at email@example.com.