IT WAS FRIDAY, January 18, just after 2 p.m., and emotions were running high at Middlesex County Superior Court. Moments earlier, the first criminal trial against John Geoghan — the now-infamous defrocked Boston priest suspected of molesting as many as 130 children over three decades — had come to a dramatic close. Since 1996, when Geoghan’s pedophilic improprieties first surfaced in the news, the once-beloved and idolized clergyman had been publicly disgraced. But he had never before set foot inside a prison or even a police station. And so, a hush fell over the courtroom as the jury handed down his fate. "Guilty as charged," the verdict sheet read, convicting him of one count of indecent child assault. A bailiff then escorted the 66-year-old child molester out the door.
Reporters, photographers, and camera crews from the New York Times, the Providence Journal, People magazine, Court TV, CNN, ABC News, Reuters, and virtually every local news outlet swirled around the courtroom. They gravitated toward four of Geoghan’s adult accusers who had come to the trial not to testify, but to witness the five-day proceedings.
Mark Keane, a slight, serious 32-year-old who says Geoghan assaulted him in the mid 1980s, struggled to absorb the outcome. "I cannot put into words my feelings," he said. Keane is one of 86 people who are suing the former priest, along with officials at the Archdiocese of Boston, in 84 pending civil lawsuits. Though the statute of limitations prevented him from filing criminal charges against Geoghan, he felt vindicated today. "I hope [Geoghan] is changing into an orange jumpsuit," Keane said with delight, "and I hope he brought his toothbrush."
Across the lobby, Maryetta Dussourd, 57, was also beaming through the thicket of lights, lenses, and microphones. "I trusted that truth would prevail," said the Jamaica Plain mother who had complained to her parish priest in 1980 that Geoghan was assaulting her three sons and four nephews. She laughed and pressed her rosary. "I’m so ecstatically happy that he’ll finally be in jail." Geoghan, who may receive a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, is awaiting sentencing in the Cambridge Jail atop the Middlesex County Courthouse. (A date for the sentencing hearing was to be set on Wednesday, January 23, after the Phoenix went to press.)
It was an emotionally charged scene. After all, this trial was the opening legal gambit in the biggest sexual-abuse scandal ever to hit Boston. And while the Church was unnamed in this particular criminal case, Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of the Boston archdiocese, and five other bishops have all been named in various combinations in the 84 pending civil suits — one of which has been filed by the victim in this criminal trial. Meanwhile, Geoghan faces more severe criminal charges — indeed, two counts each of child rape and child assault — in Suffolk County next month. If the Middlesex trial attracted a media spectacle, just imagine what kind of circus-like frenzy will surround the upcoming criminal cases. During last week’s trial, members of the press vastly outnumbered court observers (which included some of Geoghan’s 100-plus victims), and the media horde came away from the proceedings palpably hungry for more — something they’ll undoubtedly get in February.
It’s no wonder the press was left unsatisfied. The case centered on a fleeting encounter during which Geoghan, widely known as "serial predator," touched a boy’s bottom at a Waltham pool in 1991. But given the build-up before the Middlesex trial — the horrific allegations, the twists in civil litigation, the archdiocese’s high-profile apology — the actual proceedings were, in the end, unremarkable. While Geoghan ranks among the most notorious priest pedophiles in the country, you would never have gathered that from this trial. The Middlesex case represented the national media’s introduction to the sprawling and sordid scandal, but it left many reporters scratching their heads. One stringer for a national newspaper privately wondered why Middlesex district attorney Martha Coakley bothered to prosecute the case at all. "In the larger context," the reporter explained, "this has meaning. On its own, the case falls flat."
Even Coakley, who used to head up the Middlesex County Child Abuse Prosecution Unit, alluded to the prosecution’s weak case in a prepared statement read after the January 18 verdict: "Although allegations in this case to some may have seemed slight," Coakley said, "those of us who work with children ... know that one incident of unwanted sexual contact or conduct can be harmful to the victim and have a long-lasting effect."