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Cardinal sin (continued)

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 sporting league.

“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.

“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,” he says.

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 vile?

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 alleged victims.

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.

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 klombardi[a]


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