Mitchell Garabedian: The Lawyer Who Helped Expose the Boston Priest Scandal

Ron's Newsletter []

May 23, 2023

By Ronald Claiborne

He represented victims of pedophile priests and dared to take on the powerful Boston archdiocese. He’s still doing it.

Early in the 2015 movie Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning  exposé of the Boston pedophile priest sex abuse scandal, the name Mitchell Garabedian comes up.

Garabadian is a small-time lawyer who was representing clients who claim they were molested by Boston area priests. He is suing the Church and making shocking and. to some, wild allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law and the top leaders of the Boston Church knew about it and protected the priests by shuffling them from parish to parish, where they continued to prey on children. 

The Globe investigative team wonders about Garabedian. Is he credible or a whacko? Someone dismisses him as a “crank.” Another says he is “kind of a character.” It’s not meant as a compliment. A fellow lawyer who has represented abuse victims suggests that Garabedian is merely “grandstanding” to squeeze bigger settlements from the Church. “Reckless?” asks a top editor.

The movie version of Garabedian, as played by Stanley Tucci, is eccentric, prickly and, at first, uncooperative, even hostile. Spotlight is a terrific movie. It deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture. For me, there was just one false note. Mitch Garabedian.

In 2002, I was the new ABC News correspondent assigned to Boston. I had moved there from Miami just before the story broke big, propelled by the Globe’s dogged reporting. Covering it for ABC, I interviewed Garabedian many times. He was nothing like the Tucci portrayal. He was earnest, accessible and unfailingly courteous. But just as in the movie version, he was driven.

This was nearly 20 years ago. The Globe would go on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Boston scandal would rock the entire Catholic Church and force Cardinal Law to resign in 2003 (the Vatican found a sinecure for him in Rome where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 2017). Father John Geoghan, the notorious priest accused of molesting dozens of children, was convicted of sex abuse of a minor in 2002. He went to prison where he was beaten to death by another inmate. 

The fallout from the Boston scandal would include a cascade of revelations of priests abusing thousands of victims, mainly children, for many decades. All the while, the Church hierarchies in the U.S. and in many foreign countries had known about it yet covered up these crimes and allowed predatory priests continued access to children. The Church would initiate reforms designed to move quickly to deal with well-founded allegations of misconduct. Two successive Popes – Benedict and Francis – would apologize for the sexual abuse of generations of boys and girls.

And Mitchell Garabedian would continue to represent the alleged victims of pedophile priests – thousands of them, by his accounting. He’s still at it today.

I recently spoke to Mitch for the first time in many years. He says he still gets calls every week from people who say they were abused by priests as children. He said many are in their 80s and 90s and want to tell their stories before they die. We talked about the Boston scandal, how he first got involved and why, and what’s changed and what hasn’t.

What follows is an edited and condensed transcription of our conversation.

RC: How do you account for the Church systematically protecting these priests who were monsters, allowing them to abuse children for decades?

MG: I think the Catholic Church is a business that has an abundance of power and influence. Through the centuries, the Catholic Church wielded that influence and power without regard for the safety and protection of children. The Catholic Church is extremely self-centered, narcissistic and only cares about the amount of money it has in its bank accounts. The Catholic Church always portrayed itself as a key moral and religious and spiritual guide for society when, in fact, it’s a vast criminal organization.

Many victims can get over the pedophile priest abusing them because they realize or try to realize that these pedophile priests had some sort of mental defect or emotional or biological defect. But they cannot get over the supervisors, from the popes down, allowing the sex abuse to occur repeatedly to the detriment of children and families.

RC: Weren’t there some voices within the hierarchy who said, ‘This is not right. We’ve got to stop this’?

MG: The very few voices who said that were silenced. One priest came and saw me and said he wanted to be deposed and tell the truth. (When he was deposed) it was like he had amnesia. There was a bishop who complained to Cardinal Law about clergy sex abuse. He was shipped out to a small diocese in Indiana. If anyone speaks up, there’s retribution.

RC: How did the first case – I think, in 1994 – come to you?

MG: I represented a woman who had three children, approximately 8, 10, 12 years old back then. I did general legal work for her. I’d known her for years. Very nice woman. She was a single mother and she said, ‘My three children are acting very strange. The 8-year-old is washing his hands everyday till they bleed. The 10-year-old is taking two-hour showers. And the 12-year-old is beating the crap out of his younger siblings when he never used to.’ I spoke to them and I could see something was wrong. The mother said, ‘I have a priest coming to see them. Father John Geoghan. I discovered from the children that he was putting them to sleep at night. But he was not praying with them — praying with an “a” — he was preying on them.

RC: Did they tell you that?

MG: Yeah.

RC: What did you think?

MG: I thought it was very strange. But then other mothers – she lived in a housing project in Waltham, Mass. – came to me. They were having the same problems with their children and the common denominator was Father John Geoghan. He was extremely clever. He went to overburdened mothers who had children and where the father was absent. He was coming over their houses and putting their children to bed and sexually abusing them.

RC: What did you do next?

MG: I contacted the Church. I figured they’d really want to know about this and the way they acted was really strange. They acted like, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll take care of that.’ Like it was no big deal. I thought it was very, very strange. The word got out that I was representing clergy abuse victims of Geoghan and, all of a sudden, other mothers would come to me with not only Geoghan cases but other priests. So, it was building and building and building, and the Catholic Church really didn’t care. I’ll never forget the first time I filed a civil complaint in Suffolk Superior Court. It was, I think ’97, and I gave the complaint to the clerk. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s about time somebody did something about this. I go to St. Andrew’s Church. I know Father Geoghan.’ These pedophile priests were the worst kept secret in town.

RC: At what point did you start to think this is bigger than a few bad apples?

MG: About a year after I was doing it because of the way the church was trying to bury it and insist on confidentiality agreements and I just said no way, it’s not gonna happen.

RC: Why not? They might have been better off financially.

MG: That’s right. But confidentiality agreements are a re-victimization of the victim. Full disclosure, at the very beginning I had clients sign confidentiality agreements [with the Boston archdiocese] until I discovered what they were doing. Those confidentiality agreements are no longer valid because the Catholic Church has done away with them retroactively.

RC: What was your first legal action and what was the strategy behind it? 

MG: The legal action was very simple. I filed civil complaints up in Suffolk Superior Court starting around 1997. The cases were just coming forward and coming forward. I’ll never forget the day, the judge said, ‘Do you have any more cases that are coming forward?’ I said, ‘Your Honor, we have 60 more cases to be filed.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you telling me you have 16 more cases to be filed? That’s incredible.’ I said, ‘No, not 16 cases. Sixty. Six-Oh.’ I’ve had 154 cases to date just with John Geoghan.

RC: What was unveiled in the course of this scandal was that the Boston Archdiocese had documents, secret documents. What was in the secret documents?

MG: They were called the Canon Law 489 files. We learned it through research. It took me three-and-a-half years to get those in the courts. Let me give you a little history. Under Canon Law, the priests are supposed to write down incidents of sexual abuse and anything related to that, like if a pedophile priest is going to a treatment center. The bishop or archbishop, such as Cardinal Law, has the sole authority – one guy; the top dog in each archdiocese – has the authority to have those documents and they shall be kept under lock and key because they’re scandalous. Finally, we got all the documents and it showed, for instance, that Bernard Cardinal Law was sending Father Geoghan to a church in Weston when he knew he was sexually abusing children and he did not warn the public. You see all kinds of criminality in those documents. You’ll see letters from bishops saying to the pedophile priest (treatment) center, ‘You sent a letter yesterday that said the pedophile priest will not be cured and will continue to abuse children.’ And the bishop would say within that letter, ‘How dare you say that after all the money we pay you?’ Then, within a week, the treatment would send another letter saying, ‘Yeah, you know, he’s fine.’ Or the bishop might get involved and visit the family and tell them, ‘You don’t want to ruin the reputation of the Church. We’ll take care of this.’ And what they did, they just transferred the priest to another parish where he continued to abuse.

RC: Did you ever think at some point, here I am one guy going up against the legal resources and might of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston? How can I win?

MG: No, (I thought) I’m going to drive the car off the cliff if I have to. I’m going to win this. And they were trying to break me financially through depositions and delays and discovery. They were trying to paint me as a fraud. They took every measure they could to try and discredit me and try and break me. But that wasn’t going to happen. This had to be done. Now, did I know how big it was within that first year? No, but I knew it was wrong. I could see by the reaction of the Catholic Church and their lawyers, that this was business as usual for them with confidentiality agreements and it just wasn’t going to happen on my watch.

RC: You sound angry, righteously angry, but angry.

MG: I’m disgusted, not angry. I’m disgusted because the Catholic Church has ruined so many lives. To put this in perspective, if you have five children in the family or six, it doesn’t mean one was abused. Usually they were all abused. One church in Revere, they had three priests. All three at the same time, the only three priests in the church, all were sexual abusers. They used to pass the kids around. In the Third World countries, what the Catholic Church uses as leverage the fact that they’re giving money or food or clothing or shelter to the victims’ (families). So the victims know or their parents will tell them, ‘You have to take it. Let them abuse you because we’re getting food.’ [Garabedian said he has handled “over 150 cases in Haiti” which were settled altogether for $60 million.]

To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘Do you think the Catholic Church is going to change?’ I say, ‘No, it’s never going to change. It’s too entrenched. It’s got too much money. It’s got too much power. It’s got too much influence.’ (But) because of the work of advocates, lawyers, the media, the public is now aware that they have to watch their children when in the physical presence or caring custody of priests. That’s what’s changing.

RC: The (U.S.) Bishops Conference, the Church will tell you that they have made progress, that they mandate reporting, that superiors are (now) held accountable.

MG: There’s only one substitute and the Catholic Church refuses to use it. That substitute is: just call the police. You can’t expect an entity that has allowed the wholesale abuse of children for decades upon decades – and got caught doing it – all of a sudden to properly supervise themselves. It’s nonsense. It’s never going to happen. They’re not doing it.

RC: How many clients who were abused or say they were abused have you had?

MG: Thousands. I’ve sat across the table easily from more than a thousand clients over the years since 1994. And they’re still coming forward. It’s endless. I’m starting to see the individuals who were sexually abused in their late 90s and early 2000’s call me. I used to think, when I first started representing victims, maybe it’ll end in a decade or two. It’s never going to end.  

RC: What’s your background?

MG: I’m from Methuen (Massachusetts). I’m Armenian, Christian. I grew up in a middle-class family on a farm. My parents couldn’t do enough for my brother and myself. It was a very gentle life. We worked hard but didn’t know we were working hard, just thought we were having a good time. Then I came to Boston. I went to law school at New England Law. Through the years, I’ve said, ‘Did the sexual abuse crisis find me? Did I find it? Did we find each other?’ It appeared one day and I had to do it.

RC: What are you, 72 this year?

MG: I’ll be 72.

RC: How long are you going to do this? Are you going to die at the switch or do you have some thoughts of one day retiring?

MG: I have no intention of retiring.