Father Geoghan Case

Reverend John J. Goeghan—who had retired in 1993 after 28 years as a priest—entered the news quietly in 1996 when a woman in Waltham, Massachusetts filed suit alleging that he had sexually abused her three sons. Eight months later, a 22-year-old man filed a suit claiming that Geoghan had abused him beginning in 1981, when he was seven. Between 1996 and 2000, 70 people accused Geoghan of sexual abuse. By the summer of 2001, the claims had led to criminal charges and 84 civil suits, 70 by alleged victims and the rest by their family members. The church all but acknowledged his guilt when it defrocked Geoghan in 1998—the most severe penalty in canon law. Still, at his arraignment in 1999, he pleaded not guilty.

The Globe did not give the story prominent coverage, generally running stories of a few hundred words inside the Metro section. (One article about Geoghan made the front page.) But Globe columnist Eileen McNamara seized on it. After the second suit was filed against Geoghan, she wrote on January 15, 1997:

News the other day that Rev. John J. Geoghan, a retired Roman Catholic priest, stands accused for the second time in a year of molesting boys in Boston area parishes caused nary a ripple. The Archdiocese felt no pressure to discuss what, if any, disciplinary or therapeutic course it has followed in this case.

If we take child abuse so seriously, where is the outcry? Why is Father Geoghan facing only civil trial for acts of alleged rape against boys as young as seven years old? If we are really so relentless in our pursuit of pedophiles why aren't we also prosecuting him criminally, instead of allowing him to retire in the sheltering arms of his Church?

As Geoghan’s case dragged on for years, the Globe covered it conscientiously but without fanfare. Stories appeared on the inside pages of the paper. Meanwhile Law addressed the scandal only in general terms, refusing to comment on specific cases. For example, in March 2000, in a speech billed as an attempt to atone for the church’s racism and anti-Semitism, he also apologized for sexual abuse. “Intolerable situations have caused great pain and have sometimes resulted in alienation from the church,” he said. “There are obvious cases of sexual abuse which have so seared us all and the less celebrated cases of harsh words, as well as rough and unjust treatment.” [1]

Law warned . Columnist McNamara returned to the fray in mid-July 2001. The Globe had already reported that Geoghan repeatedly went on “sick leave” before reemerging at another parish, and in June 2001, during the discovery portion of Geoghan’s trial, Law had filed a document that included an admission: in September 1984—before the alleged crimes had occurred—he had been warned about Geoghan. Without naming the source, he acknowledged receiving a letter alleging that Geoghan had molested seven boys. On July 22, McNamara wrote:

Will Cardinal Bernard F. Law be allowed to continue to play duck and cover indefinitely? Will no one require the head of the Archdiocese of Boston to explain how it was that the pastors, bishops, archbishops, and cardinal-archbishops who supervised Geoghan never confronted, or even suspected, his alleged exploitation of children in five different parishes across 28 years?

A week later, in a development that made the Globe ’s front page, Law finally spoke out on the Geoghan case. In a column in the Pilot , the archdiocesan newspaper, he wrote, "Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next." The same edition of the Pilot ran a letter from Law’s lawyer blasting the plaintiffs’ lawyers for failing to mention that Law had reassigned Geoghan only after “independent medical evaluation advising that such assignment was appropriate and safe.”

McNamara responded with another column on July 29—the piece that caught Baron’s attention. She wondered in print how Cardinal Law could have assigned Geoghan to new parishes even after charges of sexual abuse had been leveled against him:

Either the church was ignorant of the kind of sexual abuse with which Geoghan is charged, or it knew enough to send its priests to treatment centers to try to curb their pedophilia. If the latter is true, why didn't Law err on the side of caution and assign Geoghan to duties other than the parish work that put him in daily contact with children? And why won't he tell his flock the extent of his supervision of Geoghan after he sent him back to work? How could there have been at least 25 more victims after 1984 if the cardinal and his agents were being vigilant in efforts to protect children from a suspected sexual predator?

It was the job of the Spotlight Team to try to answer the questions.

[1] Michael Paulson, “Laws Asks Atonement for Sins of Catholics,” Boston Globe, March 12, 2000.