John Geoghan

Sins of a Father

UPDATED 02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/04/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

Parishioners in the Boston Archdiocese knew Father John Geoghan as a beaming, impish man seemingly tireless in his pastoral duties. What most of them did not realize was that Geoghan was also allegedly a serial molester of children. One of his alleged victims, Patrick McSorley, recalls an incident in the summer of 1986 when he was only 12 and went for an ice cream with Geoghan. While in the car, says McSorley, Geoghan fondled him repeatedly and then dropped him off at home with the admonition, "We keep secrets."

That was truer than anybody knew—until recently. On Jan. 18, as part of an unfolding scandal that has engulfed the Archdiocese of Boston, Geoghan, now 66, was convicted of improperly touching a 10-year-old boy in 1991. The priest faces a second criminal trial in February, in which he is accused of raping a 7-year-old boy, and could be looking at life in prison if found guilty in that case as well. But beyond Geoghan's crimes, what has outraged many people is the disclosure that church leaders in Boston did little to stop him. In a stunning press conference on Jan. 9, Bernard Cardinal Law, head of the Archdiocese for 18 years, acknowledged that he knew as early as 1984 that Geoghan (pronounced GEY-gun) had a history of molesting children. Yet, Law added, he allowed Geoghan to continue to serve.

In all, the priest, who was finally defrocked in 1998, is alleged to have raped or molested at least 130 children, the youngest only 4 years old. In his' apology to parishioners, Law called the church's handling of the Geoghan case "tragically incorrect." He insisted he had never intended to "protect a priest accused of misconduct against minors," pointing out that he believed that Geoghan had been successfully treated.

The Geoghan case has done much damage not only to the church's reputation but to its coffers as well. So far the Boston Archdiocese has paid out an estimated $10 million to settle about 50 civil suits, with another 84 still pending. Law maintains that he is now doing everything in his power to root out the problem. He has declared a policy of "zero tolerance," under which any priest found to have molested a child will be permanently relieved of his parish duties.

But curbing the problem throughout the church may be difficult. Extrapolating from the experience of his Chicago Archdiocese, noted author Father Andrew Greeley estimates that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 priests nationwide who are child molesters, many of whom have been shuttled from one parish to another as a way of covering up their crimes. In the case of Geoghan, who became a priest in 1962, by 1966 he was already being moved out of his parish in the face of molestation allegations. Over the next 30 years he would be transferred at least three more times under similar circumstances, on each occasion getting counseling, but otherwise going unpunished. (Unlike most states, Massachusetts does not require clergy to report suspicions of molestation, as for instance teachers and doctors are obliged to do.)

In 1980 Geoghan was accused of molesting seven children at the Jamaica Plain parish near Boston—and admitted everything. Yet in 1984 Law assigned him to St. Julia's Parish in "Weston. But Bishop John D'Arcy, who was in charge of the parish and was aware of Geoghan's history, wrote the cardinal a letter questioning the move. A psychotherapist pronounced Geoghan "fully recovered," which satisfied Law. But as accusations continued to dog Geoghan, he was relieved of his duties in 1995. Defending himself, Law maintained that "I didn't have knowledge, the experience with this issue, the wisdom of time that I have now."

But to Geoghan's victims, such claims of ignorance won't wash. "This wasn't the 1940s or the 1930s—this was 1984," says Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has handled almost all the civil suits against Geoghan and the diocese. What finally brought the facts to light was a lawsuit won last November by The Boston Globe, which had been investigating the issue, that prompted the release of court documents. As the victims have come forward, they have found themselves reliving painful memories. Anthony Muzzi Jr., 48, the owner of a construction company in Scituate, Mass., says he was abused repeatedly by Geoghan in his early teens and still suffers from waves of anxiety. "You'll always have that there," says Muzzi, who has filed a civil suit against Geoghan. "You go to work, get on with your daily life, but that is always in the back of your mind."

As part of his reform campaign, Law has announced that henceforth all reports of sexual abuse involving church personnel will be forwarded to state authorities. And the Holy See in Rome has tightened its review of investigations. But any trials by the Vatican will be held in secret ecclesiastical courts. Whatever future policies are carved, and reparations paid, almost nothing will satisfy Geoghan's tormented prey. Says McSorley, now 27, who is unemployed and has battled drug and alcohol abuse: "I'd like him to go through what every victim went through."

Bill Hewitt
Mark Dagostino, Eric Francis and Carolyn Eggert in Boston, Bob Meadows in New York City and Robin Micheli in Rome

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