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
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.
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.
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 action.
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 negative experience.”
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.
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.
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.
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 Plain.
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 Catholic parishioners.
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 country.”
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 been used.
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 are followed.
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?