Pedophile Priest: the Crimes of Father Geoghan

By Denise Noe
Crime Magazine
December 1, 2003

The perception that child molesting was a rare crime perpetrated by a small number of raincoat-clad misfits crumbled in the 1970s and ’80s when studies disclosed the astonishing prevalence of this crime and the outward "normalcy" of its perpetrators.

"One out of three girls and one out of seven boys will be sexually abused by the time they reach 18," Ellen Bass and Laura Davis reported in their book, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Feminists were at the forefront of publicizing the prevalence and damage caused by these crimes. In both incest and non-family child molesting, the perpetrators were almost always men, the victims about 90 percent female. Feminist writers such as Florence Rush and Judith Hermann believed these statistics reflected an imbalance of power between the sexes. They thought the traditional family, with its ideology of male headship, led many men to treat children as property.

Over the last two decades, a series of pedophilia scandals made national headlines that did not fit the usual pattern of adult men victimizing young girls. Here the perpetrators were 100 percent male but, in 90 percent of these cases, the victims were boys, either prepubescent or teenage.

These cases involved the male-only Roman Catholic priesthood, the officially celibate clergy of a religion that deems homosexuality – even between consenting adults – a sin. The male-on-boy pattern led to a joke making the rounds in the wake of the scandals. Question: "How do you get a priest to make love with a nun?" Answer: "Dress her up as an altar boy."

The unofficial poster boy for priest pedophilia was a Boston priest named Father John Geoghan. He became a symbol for everything the church had done wrong in handling this problem when, on Jan. 6, 2002, The Boston Globe broke the story about how Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had moved the abusive Geoghan from parish to parish over the years. The article also discussed the $10 million dollar settlement the church had already made with families of his victims. After the article ran, an embarrassed Law apologized – and turned over to law enforcement the names of dozens of Boston priests who had been similarly accused.

Before 2002 was up, the financial burden of the pedophilia cases on the Archdiocese of Boston would become crushing. As The Boston Globe reported, "Experts estimated civil lawsuits could cost the church more than $100 million. . . The sizable settlements, combined with steeply declining donations, have left the archdiocese teetering on the brink of financial collapse, with officials acknowledging the church is now borrowing to meet its day-to-day operating costs."

Boston may have been the focal point for scandal but it was hardly the only home of priest offenders. "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church," a 2002 Newsweek cover story reported, "Following [Cardinal] Law’s lead, bishops in Manchester, N. H., and Portland, Maine, have agreed to turn over the names of alleged offenders to the authorities. . .the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it had found ‘credible evidence’ that 35 priests sexually abused children over five decades and that it had relieved several of them of their duties. Last week the Arizona Daily Star called for the resignation of Bishop Manuel D. Moreno of Tucson, after the disclosure that church officials had quietly paid millions of dollars in restitution to nine former altar boys."

While there was a seemingly unending list of clerical malefactors throughout every Catholic diocese in the United States, Father Geoghan was continually cited because the seriousness of his offenses, the length of his child molesting career, and the way the church covered up for his crimes epitomized the very worst in all these areas.

As a youth, Geoghan attended Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell Seminary. "Sex, Shame, and the Catholic Church" quotes the rector as writing in the 1950s that the 18-year-old Geoghan had a "very fervent spiritual life" but a "very pronounced immaturity."

This fits in with an analysis of pedophile priests by Eugene Kennedy, former priest and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality. Kennedy speculated that priests "gravitate toward male children because they’re male children themselves."

Geoghan was ordained in 1962. He first served as a priest at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Saugus, Mass. Geoghan was an outgoing, amiable man with a talent for making others believe he was deeply interested in them. As a victim was later to say, "He would make friends like you can’t believe. People loved this guy." He seemed especially interested in, and sympathetic to, the problems of young boys. But according to The Boston Globe Online, there was an early warning sign when another priest, Rev. Anthony Benzevich, reported to "church officials that Geoghan brings boys into his bedroom. Benzevich later denies it."

In 1966, Geoghan was transferred to St. Bernard’s Church in Concord. He was transferred again in 1967 to Hingham’s St. Paul’s Church. Sometime in 1968, a father complained to church officials that he had caught Geoghan in the act of molesting his son. Other parents made similar accusations.

Church authorities apparently demanded that Geoghan get psychiatric treatment at Baltimore’s Seton Institute. They made no report of his suspected criminal activity to the police.

After his treatment at Seton, Geoghan returned to priestly duties at St. Paul’s and, apparently, to crimes against boys. Joanne Mueller reported to another priest, Rev. Paul Micelli, that Geoghan had abused all four of her sons while taking them out for ice creams, giving them baths and reading them bedtime stories. Later she claimed that Micelli asked her to keep quiet about the events. He denied suggesting silence. However, the family sued the archdiocese and settled.

The mid and late 1970s found Geoghan at St. Andrew’s Church in Jamaica Plain. The friendly, seemingly caring priest was again paying regular visits to the families of parishioners, especially if they included prepubescent and teenage boys. Impoverished families received a disproportionate share of Geoghan’s attention, perhaps because he felt boys from needy groups were more starved for "comfort" than better off youngsters or that they would be less likely to complain of mistreatment. Whatever his motivation, he was again "accused of molesting seven boys in the extended Dussourd family," according to The Boston Globe Online. "Six of the children and the mothers later filed suits, which are settled."

On Feb. 9, 1980, Rev. John Thomas reported to Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Daily that Geoghan had admitted molesting the Dussourd boys. The bishop confronted Geoghan who again admitted the abuse but made the extraordinary statement that he did not feel it was "serious or a pastoral problem."

Three days later, Geoghan was put on sick leave and relieved of his duties. The archbishop of Boston at the time, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, ordered Geoghan to undergo psychotherapy. Dr. Robert Mullins and Dr. John Brennan treated the suspended priest for his sexual fixations.

Discharged from treatment, Geoghan was again permitted to function as a priest and sent to St. Brendan’s in Dorchester.

There were soon more complaints of molestation and one of an actual rape. Cardinal Medeiros had died. Boston’s new archbishop was Cardinal Bernard Law. A distressed woman wrote to Law in 1984 about the molestation of her nephew. According to the Newsweek article "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church," Law wrote back reassuring her that, "The matter of your concern is being investigated and appropriate pastoral decisions will be made."

The same article says that, after assigning Geoghan to St. Julia’s Church in Weston and after writing the above reassuring letter to the distressed aunt, the cardinal wrote to the much-traveled priest, "I am confident you will again render fine priestly service to the people of God in Saint Julia Parish."

The Boston Globe Online says that Geoghan’s superior, Monsignor Francis Rossiter, was "aware of past allegations" and, in a violation of common sense so incredible no fiction writer would dare create it, still "put [Geoghan] in charge of three youth groups, including altar boys."

It also reported that when Auxiliary Bishop John D’Arcy complained about Geoghan’s assignment to the parish given his history, Dr. Mullins pronounced him "fully recovered" and Dr. Brennan said the church could safely put him back to work sans restrictions.

In 1986, Father Geoghan paid a visit to 12-year-old Patrick McSorley. Geoghan had learned that the young boy’s father had committed suicide a few years previously. "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church" described this priest’s peculiar brand of comfort. "The priest offered to take [McSorley] out for ice cream," according to the article, "Driving slowly home . . . Father Geoghan patted the youngster’s leg. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your father’s death,’ he said consolingly. ‘For a young boy like you, that’s an awful loss.’ By the time he uttered that last word, the priest’s hands were inside the child’s shorts, McSorely says. Terrified, the boy said nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the priest fondling himself, he says. He remembers staring out the windshield for a very long time, as ice cream melted down his elbow till nothing at all was left."

During that same year, someone reported to an auxiliary bishop that Geoghan had put his hand down the trunks of a boy at a pool to play with the child’s buttocks. These molestations were typical of Geoghan’s pattern that usually involved fondling his victim’s private parts.

But sometimes he would go further. On at least one occasion during roughly the same time period in which he molested McSorley, Geoghan is believed to have forcibly raped a 14-year-old boy in the changing room of a Boys and Girls Club. Victim and attacker were both nude and the rapist was a stranger to the boy. About a month later, the teenaged Catholic saw the man who raped him – wearing a priest’s collar. He burst into tears. The trauma of rape was horribly magnified, he recalled, "It really is a rape of your soul. It is not just physical abuse, it’s a betrayal of your faith." Joanne Mueller, the complaining mother in Hingham, claimed that he raped her sons both orally and anally.

In April 1989, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Banks ordered Geoghan to check into St. Luke’s Institute. Doctors there diagnosed him as a pedophile. Banks told the priest he would have to leave the ministry. From May to November of that year, Geoghan was again on sick leave. Therapists at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., pronounced him "moderately improved" and discharged him. They recommended that he be allowed to resume his duties.

Auxiliary Bishop Banks hesitated to take that advice and requested a fuller explanation of Geoghan’s mental and sexual status. In December 1989, doctors wrote about Geoghan, "The probability he would act out again is quite low. However, we could not guarantee that it would not re-occur."

He returned to St. Julia’s. In October 1991, another boy complained that Geoghan fondled him.

Finally, in 1993, after 31 years as a priest, church officials told Geoghan to retire. Despite his many crimes against young people, the "spiritually fervent" priest apparently made a positive impression on Cardinal Law. In 1996, Law wrote to the retired priest, "Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness . . .God bless you, Jack."

Whereas previously he had bounced from parish to treatment center, he now shuttled from retirement homes to treatment centers. The doctors at one such center wrote in 1995 that he "should have no interpersonal contact with male minors that is unsupervised."

There was no way to enforce that admonition because Geoghan was not in prison. He could come and go as he pleased. According to The Boston Globe Online, in November 1994 a mother called church officials to report that "Geoghan molested her four boys and made obscene phone calls to them." Even the presence of other people did not keep him from molesting. In 1995 the retired priest attended christening of a young girl in Weymouth, at which he fondled her brother.

While therapists were sadly unable to help Geoghan control his urges, their records do offer considerable insight into his disordered psyche. His statements must be taken with many grains of salt since some are inevitably self-serving. In the time-honored tradition of blaming the victim, Geoghan indicated that the reason he targeted children from poorer families was that, "the children were just so affectionate, I got caught up in their acts of affection. Children from middle-class families never acted like that toward me so I never got so confused." The reason he gave for preying on boys might be more truthful: "I picked the boys because in some way they were the safest, the girls and the mothers would have been more dangerous." Back in the 1960s, when the priest started his nefarious career, molestation was usually thought of as a danger specific to girls whose parents would have been suspicious of a grown man who paid so much attention to their daughters. A 1996 report described Geoghan as having a "powerful sense of emotional deprivation and emotional loneliness."

After the Boston archdiocese coughed up $10 million dollars in 1998 because of Geoghan’s sexual crimes, Cardinal Law tardily decided he had had enough of this priest’s brand of "effective ministry." Newsweek reported that Law "flew to Rome and asked that the priest be relieved of his collar. Defrocking is usually a long judicial process, with room for appeal, but Law made sure in this case it was irrevocable."

Geoghan was indicted by a grand jury of the Middlesex Superior Court for indecent assault and battery on Dec. 2, 1999. The specific charges accused him of putting his hand down the trunks of a 10-year-old boy at a Boys and Girls Club.

A week later, the Suffolk Superior Court indicted Geoghan for repeated rape and molestation.

Due to the defrocking, Geoghan appeared in photos splashed across the country in coat and tie rather than the white collar he had worn most of his life. Pictures that would become all-too-familiar showed a man with yellow-white hair, a deeply lined florid face, and grape-sized bags under rheumy eyes. The expression he typically wore was that of a kind of stoic bafflement.

On Jan. 18, a jury in the Middlesex Superior Court convicted the ex-priest of indecent assault and battery in the case of a 10-year-old boy – a college student when he testified at the trial – whom Geoghan had fondled at a pool.

In March, Judge Sandra Hamlin gave Geoghan the maximum sentence. She explained her decision by saying, "He was in a position of trust and authority and he violated that trust."(Under the guidelines of the sentence, Geoghan may be considered for parole after six years in prison." At the time of that sentencing, Geoghan still faced two criminal charges [including one for rape] and dozens of civil lawsuits.

Beleaguered Cardinal

As a result of the priest/pedophile scandals that roiled the Boson archdiocese, many Boston Catholics were outraged at Cardinal Law for his part in moving sex-offender priests from parish to parish. They began to clamor stridently for Law’s resignation.

The blue-eyed, white-haired cardinal was initially defiant. In 1998, shortly after ensuring Geoghan’s irrevocable defrocking, Law acknowledged that his previous actions had been in error. "I will be haunted by those persons who have been victimized," he said sadly.

In early 2002, he told his congregation that he would not resign. "A bishop is not a corporate executive," he said, "is not a politician. When there are problems . . . you don’t walk away. You work them out together, with God’s help."

Perhaps that statement was in response to the critics who saw the church as behaving in exactly the same way businesses and politicians had in scandals as recent as Enron and as historical as Watergate. In all these cases, higher-ups had responded to the wrongs of underlings by covering up because they feared bad publicity. Of course, the ultimate irony was that the cover-up made a bad situation worse. When it finally came, the bad publicity was not the trickle of embarrassment it might have been but a flood of humiliation that washed away the careers of those at the top.

Repeating that he would never step down, Law said "We do not always make holy decisions and we turn to God for the forgiveness He is always ready to give." On another occasion he declared, "Our faith doesn’t rest on the shifting winds of popular opinion."

In addition to the Boston laity, many decent Archdiocese of Boston priests were horrified by the way Law, his predecessor, and other church officials had covered up for sex criminals. Men who were true to their vows of celibacy felt tarred by association. "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church" reported that "a few are said to be so humiliated that they’ve stopped wearing their collars in public."

As more and more priests (active and defrocked) were prosecuted around the United States, a veritable clerical rogue’s gallery of sex-offender priests appeared in the press. In "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church," Newsweek highlighted four other priest malefactors besides the notorious Geoghan. They were: Rudolph Kos of Dallas, Tex., who was convicted in 1998 of aggravated sexual assault; Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La., who pled guilty in 1984 to molesting boys in four parishes; bisexual child molester James Porter of Fall River, Mass.; and John Hanlon of Plymouth, Mass., convicted in 1994 of raping an altar boy. In a separate and later roundup, Newsweek would again feature Porter and Hanlon but add Ronald Paquin, who had repeatedly raped an altar boy and Kelvin Iguabita, who had molested a girl. Another priest often spotlighted was Boston’s Paul Shanley who, like Geoghan, had been moved from parish to parish despite allegations of molesting and raping prepubescent and teenage boys.

The public outrage against Law did not abate. Despite Law’s earlier avowals that he would hang on to his office no matter what, the cardinal flew to the Vatican to tender his resignation, which Pope John Paul II accepted on Dec. 13, 2002.

The Roman Catholic Church realized, very tardily, that it had to overhaul its rules regarding predatory priests. At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held in Dallas in June of 2002, the conferees voted to require all bishops to report any allegation of a sex crime by a priest against a minor to the police. The bishops also voted that any priest who has abused a minor must be deprived of a ministry but did not demand that all such priests be defrocked. Some critics were disappointed that automatic defrocking was not part of the new program. The new rules also said that bishops must fully disclose a priest’s record to any parish into which he is transferred.

The Vatican swiftly approved most of the new rules.

Geoghan tormented, then killed

After his conviction, Geoghan was sent to the protective custody unit in Massachusetts’s Concord prison.

Child molesters are the lowest of the low on the inmate hierarchy. But, as reported by Newsweek in a September 2003 article called "Preying on the Predator," Geoghan’s chief tormentors at Concord were not other prisoners but the outraged guards. Correction officers are believed to have regularly spat in his food. They called him "Satan" and "Lucifer" and insisted that the former priest – who was still a Catholic since he had been defrocked but not excommunicated – answer to those names. On one occasion, Geoghan is supposed to have discovered that a guard had defecated in his bed.

The guards’ persecution of the pedophile was so bad that other inmates, as well as Geoghan, complained about it.

After several months in Concord, Geoghan was transferred to a prison in Shirley, Mass., and again put in a protective custody unit. When one of his attorneys visited in April 2003, Geoghan told her that he was relieved to be at this prison where he could spend his time in his cell praying. Always a man of grotesque contradictions, he remained "fervently" religious.

Geoghan would not be relieved for long. On Aug. 23, a young, powerfully built murderer named Joseph Druce went into Geoghan’s cell where he bound, gagged, then strangled the 67-year-old child molester. Druce repeatedly jumped on the man as he lay dying.

As a response team tried to open the door that Druce had tightened shut with a book, the now double murderer told them, "Don’t bother to hurry. He’s already dead."

Druce is known to be rabidly homophobic. The dark-haired, handsome thug was serving a life sentence for murdering a male truck driver, allegedly because the victim made sexual advances. He is a member of the white racist prison gang Aryan Brotherhood. The Boston Globe reported that psychiatrists hired by Druce’s lawyers found that he had been sexually molested by three adult men during his childhood. This is someone who clearly would have a special grudge against Geoghan.

The Newsweek article noted that "while some states have developed sophisticated systems to separate natural enemies," Massachusetts is not one of them and that even "if someone had realized the danger, there was no easy solution: Massachusetts has just two prisons that provide protective custody units: the one in Concord where Geoghan felt abused by guards and the one where he died."

As a result of the murder, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a committee to examine ways the state can work to ensure the safety of its inmates.

The saga of John Geoghan is indeed bizarre. Deeply religious and monstrously twisted, he damaged the lives of many young men and their families. His crimes led to a long overdue housecleaning in the church whose tenets he had so flagrantly betrayed. His death may lead to vital changes in the way inmates in his state are protected. As "Preying on the Predator" noted, this "very troubled man" has left behind a bewildering variety of "strange legacies."

Haunted victims, decent priests, and a threatened church

Molested children frequently experience terrible trauma. Anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction and obsession, can plague molested children well into adulthood. Eating disorders, self-mutilation, drug and alcohol abuse are among the other difficulties common among this group. Newsweek quotes Patrick McSorley, 12 years old at the time he was abused by Geoghan, as saying he "began suffering anxiety attacks and depression" after the priest violated him.

Elinor Burkett and Frank Bruni in A Gospel of Shame wrote that, in the aftermath of sexual molestation, "Small children revert to infantile acts. They wet their bed. They refuse to sleep alone. Older ones retreat from family and friends, hiding in their rooms or turning their terror into terrorism, lashing out at others."

Burkett and Bruni also wrote about a priest’s victim who became a child rapist.

Abuse by trusted clergy is believed even more traumatic than molestation usually is. Like an incestuous molester, a priest is someone especially trusted and respected. Mary Grant, who alleges that a priest molested her and settled a suit against him, said, "When you are abused by your priest, the trauma is tenfold." Molested by men who were supposed to be servants of God, victims see themselves as especially – even divinely – abandoned. They sometimes believe that the Lord saw them as so low they deserved to be abused. The self-esteem problems resulting from such irrational but very real feelings can devastate their lives.

All sources agree that the only a small minority of priests are pedophiles. The vast majority of priests make up an often-overlooked group of victims of this horror. In a cruel irony, men who have been true to their vows, sacrificing the joys of sexual intimacy for a religious vocation, often have found themselves tarred by the same brush as the abusive minority.

Gospel of Shame recounts the story of a priest walking through Boston when a car of teenagers pulled up beside him and shouted "rapist." Burkett and Bruni wrote, "The priest’s stomach tightens into a knot, and he has to fight the impulse either to scream in rage, or to cry."

After the hideous 2002 revelations, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, not known as a friend to organized religion, pointed out that the publicity might put innocent priests in jeopardy. Harvey Silvergate, who sits on the board of the Massachusetts ACLU, commented, "We’re in an atmosphere now where there’s a substantial chance of accusations against, even conviction of, an innocent priest. The problem with witch hunts is that everybody accused is suddenly found guilty."

After Cardinal Law’s resignation, Pope Paul II installed 59-year-old Capuchin friar Sean Patrick O’Malley as the archbishop in Boston. There was a reason the Pope chose O’Malley for this honor. The Boston Globe said he was "an expert at taking over troubled Catholic dioceses." He had most recently been brought in to deal with clerical sex-abuse scandals in two other U.S. dioceses, one in Fall River, Mass., and the other in West Palm Beach, Fla.

According to "What a New Archbishop Faces" in The Christian Science Monitor, Fall River had been torn apart by the case of Father James Porter in the 1990s. In West Palm Beach, two bishops in a row had resigned due to their own acts of sexual abuse. The newspaper noted the promising fact that O’Malley’s actions in these two dioceses "won praise from a few of the church’s strongest critics." Terry McKiernan, co-director of a group called called O’Malley "perhaps the best possible choice among the candidates." called him one of only five U.S. bishops who "lived up to their commitments." A man of eloquence, he reached out to victims in both dioceses and put policies in place that were considered appropriate for helping victims and preventing future abuses.

In the ceremony in which he officially became archbishop, "O’Malley spoke of "our mismanagement of the problem of sexual abuse" and said, "the whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and the damage inflicted on so many young people." He also asked that people look at all that the Church had done rather than focusing on its errors, however, bad they might have been: "Although we live through a sad chapter in the Church’s history, we must recall that it is a chapter. It is not the whole book."

In September 2003, one of O’Malley’s first acts was to authorize the payment of $85 million in funds from the Archdiocese of Boston to 552 victims of molestation by priests there. Abuse victims would receive from $80,000 to $300,000 depending on how long and how severely they were abused.

Has the U.S. Catholic Church learned its lesson? There are certainly still a significant number of pedophile priests working in dioceses throughout the United States and there will be more pedophile priests to come. Have the days of shuttling priest sex-offenders from one parish to the next, instead of turning them over to civil authorities to face criminal charges, come to an end? That is the acid test for judging the church’s commitment to reform, not the amount of money it is forced to pay out in out-of-court "settlements."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.