How America's Catholic Church Crucified Itself

The Sunday Times Magazine [United States]
March 13, 2005

4,000 paedophile priests identified
80 churches closed down
An archbishop forced to resign
$800m paid in lawsuits
100,000 child victims estimated — and thousands more still at risk

The archbishop's summer residence was the first to go. There had been questions: why does he need the picture-postcard colonial mansion, with its five bedrooms and private beach on the exclusive Cape Cod shoreline? Didn't he already have an opulent mansion in Boston? The three-story abode, resplendent in marble and mahogany to reflect its occupant's stature, had been built in the style of an Italian palazzo, and the archbishop's daily routine was catered for by a posse of nuns. The beach-house sale raised more than $2.5m, but it didn't stop there. His official Boston residence had to be sold too, and, along with 43 neighbouring acres, raised over $100m. But it didn't stop there either.

More than 80 Catholic churches in the Boston archdiocese were ordered to close their doors to save overheads. Parishioners occupied some of them, sleeping on pews, in a hopeless bid to save them. But still the inexorable rot ate away at the fabric of the church.

The archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, 74, was forced to resign. He had paid a heavy personal price. This only son of an air-force colonel, who joined the priesthood in 1961 and became one of the most powerful men in the United States after fighting in the front line of Mississippi's civil-rights movement, was ŇretiredÓ to Rome — a life's work sullied because he put the church's name before the protection of his flock. Law had spent 18 years effectively protecting paedophile priests, who went on, time and again, to re-offend and rape children entrusted to their care by devout parents. It emerged that Law's response to overwhelming evidence of paedophile activity was simply to move the priest to another parish, often allowing them to continue working with children, to write them glowing references and tributes, and to pay off victims' families. More than 1,000 children in the Boston area were sacrificed in the interests of protecting the diocese from scandal.

The years of shielding abusive priests came back to haunt Law, when the weight of dammed-up outrage burst out of the confessional and swamped the church. Churches closed and the residences were sold to pay a massive legal bill that matched the enormity of the crime.

Investigations and the church's own files have revealed that more than 220 priests in the Boston archdiocese alone were guilty of molesting or abusing 789 children — and those were just the cases in which the victims were willing to come forward. It cost the archdiocese over $100m to settle claims from 500 victims. But the meltdown was not restricted to Boston. As the city's disgrace raged, more files were opened and investigations launched in other parts of the US. Hundreds, then thousands of victims across the country began to speak out. The high number of cases may have been dismissed as mass hysteria had it not been for the meticulous records kept by the Catholic Church itself. Over the past 50 years, its own internal investigations had secretly confirmed thousands of complaints, then buried them.

There are over 60m Catholics in the US; 194 archdioceses such as Boston, which average 100 parishes apiece; and nearly 45,000 priests to serve them all. As the victims have told their stories, so the archdioceses have paid the price. In Dallas the church has sold $11m worth of property to help fund a $30m settlement; in Providence, Rhode Island, the church has sold its bishop's summer residence to finance a $14m settlement for 36 cases of abuse; in California, Santa Rosa diocese has sold real estate to fund a $16m court case; and Orange County has paid over $100m to settle 87 lawsuits. Three dioceses — Spokane, Portland and Tucson — have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection; grand juries have begun hearings in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Massachusetts. Eight bishops have resigned and more could follow as the revelations mount. And the church faces one monumental case in Los Angeles, where 544 victims may cost the church up to $1.5 billion.

The shame being heaped on the Catholic Church hierarchy is overwhelming. The governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, has likened the Catholic Church in the US to the mafia. Congregations across the country have dropped by up to 20% as the faithful protest in support of transparency and reform; annual income of around $7.5 billion has dropped sharply; and many parish priests withheld the contents of their collection plates from diocese coffers for fear that the money would be used to fund legal actions rather than their pensions.

Over $800m has been paid in settlements to date, and that figure is rising. Such is the weight of outstanding cases that the bill could eventually reach more than $2 billion. The enormity of the church's cover-up is demonstrated by one simple fact: the number of actual convictions of priests for child molestation in the US in the past 50 years can be counted on one hand. Yet the church itself has finally admitted that for years it has harboured thousands of paedophile priests.

Catholic bishops in America have spent years enforcing their own code of omerta to keep its sordid secret. Official Vatican policy dictated that priest abuse was "an unspeakable crime". Nobody in authority within the church was allowed to speak openly about child molestation by ordained priests. Officials dealing with allegations of child abuse had to take an oath of perpetual silence. The punishment for breaking this rule: excommunication.

But one woman could no longer keep quiet. Maryetta Dussourd, 58, has been bottling up her knowledge for 25 years. On a cold day soon after Thanksgiving, she lets it all out. She starts calmly enough, drinking coffee in a hotel by Boston's harbour. By the time she has finished, a mountain of tear-soaked tissues lie shredded in front of her. They mirror her life — rent apart by her priest and the church's failure to protect her family.

When she was 21, Maryetta Gallant married a young soldier, Ralph Lafayette Dussourd. The Irish-American girl was raised with a traditional devotion to the Catholic Church. Her elder sister, Marge, was a postulate nun with a Carmelite nursing order. Within four years, Maryetta and Ralph had three sons.

A daughter followed a few years later. Maryetta's life was her family and the church. Her husband, a general handyman, ran the Little League baseball team their sons played in, and at weekends he painted, decorated and helped to maintain the fabric of St Andrew's Church in Jamaica Plain, where Maryetta had had her first communion and was a member of the prayer group run by the assistant pastor, Father John Geoghan. "We were enslaved by obedience," says Maryetta, who is still deeply religious.

"When you become a Catholic you find out that your route to heaven is through priests and obeying the Ten Commandments. You always had to be obedient to the priests, the bishops, the cardinal and the Pope. Obedience about sex in marriage, on birth-control issues, how you get pregnant — all of that happened to me. This was how we were trained. I was told that the institution of marriage was to raise children. When my husband lost his job after the place where he worked burnt down, I wanted to use birth control. The priest said I knew the laws of the church and that it was unacceptable."

In 1978, Maryetta's niece, who lived in Stowton, Massachusetts, lost a baby daughter to cot death. She also had four boys, aged 10, 8, 5 and 4. To help her niece recover from her loss, Maryetta and Ralph took their four great-nephews into their home for nine months. Their own sons were now aged 12, 11 and 10; their daughter, 7. Caring for eight children proved no difficulty for Maryetta, who took everything in her stride, including being the local Cub Scout den mother. They enjoyed Thanksgiving, made cookies, painted each other's faces, and when they went out visiting, she proudly marched them along the pavement in four rows of two.

It was during this period that the parish priest Father John Geoghan began visiting the family home. "I know now that Father Geoghan was worming his way into our home, into our family, into our lives," Maryetta says. "But not then. I was so proud that he would visit us, my family, so often. I didn't even know what a paedophile was.

"Every mother who knew him said he was charming, youthful-looking and charismatic. It never occurred to me not to trust him. A priest in a collar is someone whose hands are consecrated, who is giving you the Eucharist, forgiving you your sins. Aren't you meant to believe that that person is trustworthy?" The question hangs in the air.

Maryetta is angry now as she struggles, 25 years later, to explain how she let this man into her home. After the children had their tea, the priest would take them up to their bedrooms to say prayers. This is where the abuse happened over many months — to all seven boys, five of whom shared one room. Maryetta never learnt what was happening until her great-nephews returned home to their mother. Then they confided in their aunt, Marge Gallant, the nun who had left her order and was now a nurse.

"She went into hysterics," recalls Maryetta. "My youngest nephew had a problem — he kept urinating in a wastepaper basket in the kitchen, but this happened after visits from Father Geoghan. She phoned me and told me not to let Geoghan into the house. Before I talked with my husband I asked my eldest boy about it. I said it was okay, he had done nothing wrong.

I just wanted to hear from him what had happened, and told him I already knew, because his cousins had told his Aunt Margaret.

"But he froze up and ran out of the back door saying, "No, Father Geoghan told me you'd hate me and that you'd never love me again because you love the church more than you love me."

"I brought him back in, hugged him and told him that what Father Geoghan said was a lie, that nobody could separate us or destroy the love I had for him." Then the boy revealed the priest had raped him several times.

"All my sons had the same fear — that I loved my religion more than them. That's what Geoghan told them. It was true that I did love the Catholic Church — I even read the Bible at the baseball field. My son was shaking and petrified. He was so scared that he believed this man when he said I would hate him, would disown him, not believe him or even love him any more."

Now Maryetta is sobbing inconsolably. She reaches for more tissues, dabbing her mascara-stained eyes. "My husband wanted to go to the church and confront the priest, to beat him up for touching his children. I had to stop him. He wanted to have the police there and to do it in front of the whole congregation. It tore him apart. Nobody can understand what this does to a family. Parents don't speak to each other, then they shut down, but you can sense what the other person is feeling — the anger, the hurt and the pain. And you feel, 'How could anyone hurt my baby?' We loved them and hugged them and told them, over and over, how much we loved them and their sister. How could he have done this to us?

How could he betray my husband, who was not even a Catholic but would have done anything to help the church? How could they have destroyed who he was because they had destroyed his boys, confused them, terrified them, had them screaming and crying at night, afraid to go out because they thought people would know what Geoghan had done to them? The boys thought people could see inside their minds. It was bad enough that this had happened to my three sons, but to my four nephews too? The youngest was only four. They were in my care. It was so overwhelming it shut me down. I imploded inside."

Slowly, Maryetta and Ralph's marriage began to disintegrate. Soon after learning the full extent of what had happened, they raised the matter with the church authorities. An auxiliary bishop, wearing his vestments, rang the doorbell at Marge Gallant's house. He had come to see the boys, who were staying with her. He spoke to them alone, gave them his blessing, then said "good night" and left. "And that was it — he walked out the door," says Maryetta. "He never had any conversation with Marge, asked how she was feeling or gave any apologies. He had asked the children about Geoghan and they told him."

A confidential note in the priest's personnel file in the chancery of the Boston archdiocese says: "He [Geoghan] admits the activity but does not feel it serious or a pastoral problem."

What nobody knew, outside a handful of people among the hierarchy of the archdiocese, was that Geoghan had been reported for child molestation in 1967 — 12 years before. Geoghan was removed from the parish and discreetly sent to the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore for treatment. He was then given another parish.

After Maryetta's sons and nephews were assaulted, a similar process followed: Geoghan was quietly sent away from St Andrew's for psychotherapy. Within a year he was made assistant vicar at St Brendan's parish in the Boston suburb of Dorchester. None of the parishioners knew they had a paedophile priest in their midst, but soon Marge Gallant saw him in a shop with a boy and reported the matter. Geoghan gave his bishop a simple explanation. He had attended a wake, visited the widow and offered to take her son to an ice-cream parlour. His story must have been accepted, because soon afterwards the priest took a three-month sabbatical at the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the Casa Santa Maria, in Rome. The archdiocese even gave him $2,000 to cover his living expenses.

Later, Marge Gallant heard he was still having contact with children, but this time she wrote a formal letter to Law's predecessor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, pointing out that they had already been told about Geoghan's behaviour with children. "It appears that no action has been taken," she wrote on August 16, 1982. "Am I to assume now that we were patronised? Our family is deeply rooted in the Catholic Church. Our great-grandparents and parents suffered hardship and persecution for love of the church. Our desire is to protect the dignity of the holy orders, even in the midst of our tears and agony over the seven boys in our family who have been violated. We cannot undo that, but we are obligated to protect others from this abuse.

"It was suggested that we keep silent to protect the boys — my sister never received an apology from the church, much less any offer for counselling for the boys. It embarrasses me that the church is so negligentÉ My heart is broken over this whole mess, and to address my cardinal in this manner has taken its toll on me too."

Two years later, Marge Gallant discovered that Geoghan was again enjoying young boys' company. By now Medeiros had been replaced by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Bernard Law. A copy of the letter she wrote to Law on September 6, 1984, was found much later in the church records. As a result the archbishop removed the priest and "placed him between assignments".

But Geoghan had an ally in his uncle, Monsignor Mark H Keohane, an influential senior priest within the archdiocese. After Marge Gallant sent her second letter of protest and Geoghan had been withdrawn from St Brendan's parish, Keohane arranged to have lunch with Archbishop Law. Two days later, his nephew was given a new assignment: at St Julia's Parish in Weston, Massachusetts, he was placed in charge of three youth groups, which included altar boys.

Four years later, the church files reveal, complaints about Geoghan began again. A boy who was discovered performing oral sex on his brother told his mother that Geoghan did the same to him. The police were called in, but discrepancies in their stories led to the case being dropped. The same thing had occurred with other Massachusetts police forces, who were quietly persuaded to let the church authorities deal with allegations of abuse by priests.

Geoghan had clearly lied when he told his bishop: "I don't have the sexual attraction for children I had before." Doctors had diagnosed him a paedophile and reported: "We believe Father Geoghan is a high risk." A psychiatrist wrote to Bishop Robert J Banks of Boston: "You better clip his wings before there is an explosion; you can't afford to have him in a parish."

Geoghan was sent for a third period of treatment. Three months later his doctors said he was "in remission". His discharge assessment, which was sent to the archdiocese, described the priest as "immature and impulsive" and said he had a chronic dependent personality structure and a personality disorder "mostly of a histrionic and obsessive compulsive nature".

How did the archdiocese react to the clear and sustained danger Geoghan represented? Archbishop Law reassigned him to St Julia's parish in Weston, with a letter that said: "It's most heartening to know things have gone well for you and you are ready to resume your efforts with a renewed enthusiasm. I am confident you will again render fine priestly service to the people of God in St Julia's parish." But churchgoers were never warned about his paedophile activities. Within two years, the archdiocese records show, more complaints were surfacing:

October 23, 1991: a woman complained about Geoghan's behaviour in a swimming pool with a young boy.

July 3, 1992: Geoghan approached a young man he had first sexually abused over 20 years before. The victim threatened to kill the priest.

November 30, 1994: a single mother complains that Geoghan had taken her three young sons' underpants down and touched them.

Geoghan's reputation was starting to filter out of Boston's Catholic community, and a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, began documenting the cases of those few families prepared to break their silence. Before long, Maryetta Dussourd told the lawyer her story, and the cases against Geoghan began to pile up. A young man, Patrick McSorley, revealed how Geoghan had assaulted him. Tragically, he died from a drugs overdose last year. Six victims came forward from the same family in Geoghan's first parish. A woman said he had raped her in his car in 1965 when she was 15. She smelt the alcohol on his breath and he made her perform oral sex on him in the parish rectory.

Geoghan continued to protest his innocence but the Reverend Brian Flatley, a priest working in the Chancery in Boston, reported that Geoghan had not been totally honest. He had been lying to his doctors and to the archdiocese. "It is a shock to me to learn priests have lied to me. . . Geoghan is either being untruthful or is in massive denial." He was placed on administrative leave and soon the district attorney for Suffolk County and the Boston Police Sexual Assault Unit both began investigating. It was not until January 1997 that Geoghan's disgrace became public, when his story was published in a small-circulation newspaper. The archdiocese was now in grave difficulty, because the state of Massachusetts had changed the law that had previously allowed many child-abusers to escape justice. Their victims often waited until they were grown up before making a complaint, and by then too much time had elapsed since the original offence. Now a new law introduced a 15-year statute of limitation on child molestation.

A few weeks earlier, Geoghan had been given retirement status as a priest. His boss, Cardinal Law, wrote to him: "Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness. On behalf of those you have served well, and in my own name, I would like to thank you. . . God bless you, Jack." According to the Suffolk County prosecutor, Geoghan had continued to abuse children even while he was on administrative leave. In March 1998 the DA had issued a summons to the archdiocese for all the records pertaining to Father John J Geoghan. They wanted every scrap of paper that related to his time as a priest. It compelled Law to finally take action: Geoghan was defrocked.

It was only in January 2002, when Geoghan was convicted of assaulting the boy in the swimming pool, that hundreds more victims came forward. Five priests were suspended and many more were named and shamed. The Boston archdiocese was forced to hand over to the DA the names of 87 other priests who had been accused of sexually abusing children. Further investigation uncovered many more. Records showed that, long before the scandal broke, the Boston archdiocese had given more than $17m in hush money to the families of 400 young male victims, in cases where more than 190 priests were implicated. The attorney-general of Massachusetts reported: "The mistreatment of children [within the archdiocese of Boston] was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable. The magnitude of clergy sexual abuse is staggering."

The denouement for Geoghan was horrible and shocking. He was given a 10-year sentence in the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts, which houses 1,000 prisoners in a hermetically sealed, computer-controlled environment overseen by 366 CCTV cameras. Doors in the unit open via a touch-screen computer in the guard-duty station, which was 20ft away from the defrocked priest's cell. Geoghan was there for his own protection. His cell contained a metal bunk, two shelves, a toilet and a locker. Three or four times a week he played cards with inmates. Still in denial, he told them his accusers had come out of the woodwork to make money; he said even if he did touch the boys' buttocks, he didn't warrant 8 to10 years' jail. He was known in prison slang as a "skinner" (a child-abuser)."Bless me father, for I have skinned," he was chided.

Another prisoner was Joseph L Druce, a 37-year-old murderer, drug addict and white supremacist. On Saturday, August 23, 2003, there was one guard on duty. Druce followed Geoghan into his cell after they had had a meal, slipping in behind him before the door automatically closed. Then he murdered him. He used his T-shirt to bind Geoghan's hands, then strangled him with his socks. He used a paperback book, along with Geoghan's nail clippers and toothbrush, to jam the cell door's sliding mechanism, and one of Geoghan's shoes to tighten a tourniquet around his neck. He then jumped on his chest several times, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lungs.

Druce said he had been planning the attack for a month. Taken by guards to a court hearing, where he was charged with murdering Geoghan, he yelled to reporters: "Hell, I'll go through torture for the kids." He shouted at other inmates: "Let's keep the kids safe." In response the prisoners yelled: "Druce. Druce. Druce."

Maryetta Dussourd was appalled by the murder. "How could this happen? He was meant to be in a more secure place. What survivors wanted was justice. Not this."

Geoghan was buried in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts. Also buried there were President Kennedy's parents, four Boston mayors, a cardinal and several bishops.

Weeks later there was a surreal turn of events. The Massachusetts Appeals Court "vacated" Geoghan's conviction and ordered his original indictment dismissed. The ruling was customary under Massachusetts law when convicts die in mid-appeal and lawyers seek to have their convictions quashed. It happens in several states. The Massachusetts prosecutors neither opposed nor agreed to the motion from the dead priest's lawyer. Mitchell Garabedian, who had represented more than 100 of Geoghan's victims, demanded that the law be changed: "It's as though Father John Geoghan's sexual abuse, his trial and the jury's decision never happened."

For America's Catholic Church, Geoghan's shocking end has merely closed an early chapter in a nationwide scandal, eroding congregations and finances, and the foundations of its power base. In February 2005 a second Boston priest, Paul R Shanley, was jailed for 12 years for raping a boy 20 years ago. More court cases involving sexual abuse by priests are bound to follow.

There is overwhelming evidence that, even now, the church hasn't faced up to the devils within. Consider this. A Conference of Catholic Bishops report a year ago said that nearly 4,400 priests have abused minors over four decades.

Yet the report claimed there were only 10,667 victims. Just last month they were forced to concede that another 1,000 child victims have been discovered. It is inconceivable that paedophile priests, allowed to offend with little more than a slap on the wrist and rewarded by the sustained protection of the church, offended on average only twice in 40 years.

One man believes that the church has underestimated the number of paedophiles in its ranks. Richard Sipe, a former monk who now lectures at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, researched 1,500 case studies while investigating celibacy in the priesthood. He concluded that 2% of priests are paedophiles and another 4% are attracted to children. That would mean more than 6,000 of the 109,000 priests active during the past 40 years have been, at the very least, a potential danger to children.

It is becoming clear that the priests identified as paedophiles were not one- or two-time offenders, as church figures suggest, but repeat offenders, their unpunished crimes spanning not weeks or months but decades. If Snipe's figure is to be believed, hundreds, even thousands, are still administering to their flocks.


Cardinal Law's Boston residence, sold along with 43 acres of land for $100m to pay for court actions involving 500 victims. Right: Law celebrates mass. Far right: Father Geoghan, found guilty of child abuse, is sentenced to 9-10 years jail in February 2002


Maryetta Dussourd's three sons, who were abused by Father John Geoghan 25 years ago. The priest regularly visited her home and took the boys to their bedroom to pray. Left: Maryetta breaks down after giving evidence against the priest in 2002


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