How it began:
Cardinal Announces Defrocking of Priest Accused
June 6, 1998 - The Boston Globe by Diego Ribadeneira
Cardinal Bernard Law revealed yesterday that he has defrocked John
J. Geoghan, a retired priest accused of sexually molesting more
than 50 children over three decades, in an extraordinary punitive
move sanctioned by Pope John Paul II. This man can never again present
himself as a priest" Law said in an interview at his Brighton
While the Pontiff authorized the defrocking early this year, Law
said he decided to announce it yesterday after it was revealed this
week that the church had paid millions of dollars to settle claims
against Geoghan brought by dozens of his alleged victims. "There's
been so much notoriety that I felt it necessary to point this out
for the record, " said Law, who has sent a letter explaining
his actions to all priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Church officials believe that Geoghan's punishment is the first
time a Priest has been defrocked, or laicized as if is formally
called, in the 125-year history of the archdiocese. Defrocking is
the most serious punishment that can be meted out against a priest.
Geoghan can no longer perform any priestly duties, including saying
Mass, performing weddings, or anointing the dying.
It would be the equivalent, some priests noted, of being disbarred
as an attorney or being expelled from Congress. Geoghan, who has
never talked about the allegations against him, could not be reached
yesterdav. He has kept a low profile ever since the allegations
against him were first made public more than a year ago. Archdiocosan
sources say Geoghan, who is living in the Boston area, has not cooperated
with church officials, refusing, for example, to undergo counseling.
Law said he personally informed Geoghan of his defrocking. "He
understood the decision and the ramifications of it" he said.
Citing ongoing criminal investigations of Geoghan, Law declined
to go into any details about allegations against the ex-priest or
what evidence he provided the Vatican to make a case for defrocking.
But he did say that be used a rarely used provision in canon law
covering forced laicization that makes it impossible for Geoghan
to appeal his defrocking in ecclesiastical court. Another section
of church law does permit appeals.
"I felt it would be more helpful, all things considered, that
an appeal with the delay it would mean not be part of the picture,"
Law said. "This is a definitive decision." Some of Geoghan's
alleged victims praised Law for taking the action. "I'm happy
that the church has decided not to harbor a pedophile," said
John D. Sacco, who alleges that Geoghan molested him in the 1960s
while the Geoghan served Blessed Sacrament parish in Saugus.
"That's a good step on Law's part because so much of the problem
in the past is that the church has just recycled these guys from
parish to parish," said Jason Berry, a Catholic writer in New
Orleans and author of "Lead Us Not into Temptation,' a 1992
book on clergy sexual abuse. Laicization is typically.a lengthy,
complex, and sensitive process that has been a stumbling block to
re- moving priests accused of sexual abuse. Law said he began the
process of defrocking Geoghan about a year ago. Geoghan still faces
criminal investigations by the district attorneys in Suffolk and
Middlesex counties. And there are at least a dozen lawsuits still
pending against Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston.
The archdiocese has settled 12 lawsuits against Geoghan and the
church by paying at least 50 of his alleged victims a total of between
$2.5 million and $10 million, according to several victims. Some
of Geoghan's alleged victims and church observers wondered why it
had taken Law so long to punish Geoghan. Several alleged victims
and their relatives charge that church officials knowingly returned
Geoghan to parish work even after receiving information that he
had sexually abused children.
"If they had done this 30, even 20 years ago, a lot of kids
would have been spared the pain and the trauma they have had to
endure," Sacco said. The mother of one of Geoghan's alleged
victim told the Globe that as early as 1972 she told officials at
St. Mary of the Annunciation Church in Melrose that Geoghan was
sexually abusing her son.
In 1980 Geoghan was placed on sick leave after a mother told arch-diocesan
officials that he was molesting her sons while he was at St. Andrew's
Church in Forest Hills. At the end of his sick leave in 1981, Geoghan
was returned to parish duty and allegedly molested children at two
more churches until he was again placed on sick leave in 1995.
Over 31 years following his ordination in 1962, Geoghan served
six parishes in the Boston area. Without referring specifically
to the Geoghan case, Law acknowledged that in the past the church
did not do a good job of handling sexual abuse allegations. But
he insisted that the archdiocese has improved its treatment of victims
and of priests accused of sexual abuse.
Nonetheless, Law acknowledges, "As long as I am archbishop
I will be haunted by those persons who have been victimized."
The Geoghan case has been a public relations nightmare for the Archdiocese
of Boston and is-one of hundreds of sexual abuse that have convulsed
the church in the United States recent years.
Just last week the Rev.'Joseph Keith Symons sent shock waves across
the church when he resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., after
admitting having molested five boys early in his priesthood. In
the past 15 years, about 1,000 pedophile priests have been identified
nationally, and during that period the church has paid nearly $800
million to settle with victims of sexual abuse, according to those
who track the issue. There are about 50,000 priests in the United
While church officials have shown increasing concern for victims,
critics say the church is still primarily interested in protecting
its reputation and trying to make scandals disappear as quickly
as possible. Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse say there
is still a reluctance on the part of some dioceses in the United
States to aggressively investigate allegations.
Most dioceses keep investigations private, leaving parishioners
to wonder why priests have been suddenly yanked out of their churches.
In Boston, some advocates and attorneys who handle sexual abuse
cases acknowledge that the archdiocese has done a significantly
better job of dealing with the explosive issue.
New guidelines instituted by Law five years ago give the archdiocese
greater latitude in dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse,
including immediately removing clerics from their posts until an
investigation can be conducted. Church officials also report allegations
of abuse involving children to legal authorities. It is clear, church
observers note, that the American bishops' approach to clergy sexual
abuse has changed dramatically in the past 15 years as a result
of a more sophisticated understanding of pedophilia.
Today, most American church officials realize that priests accused
of sexually abusing children should never again be allowed to work
with children and most dioceses have aggressive policies for dealing
with sexual abuse. But American bishops still face a tug-of-war
with the Vatican over how to punish priests accused of sexual abuse.
The bishops, faced with a serious financial and moral crisis, want
to streamline the process of defrocking priests. But the Vatican,
concerned about ensuring that the due process of priests is not
violated, urges caution.
"If the bishops have the power to cut these guys loose earlier
it would save them a lot of money and it would save parishioners
a lot of grief," said Phil Saviano, regional coordinator for
the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Law said in some
cases he does favor a more expedited process. "I am confident
that I have done the right thing before God,"' he said. "I
would ask people today to pray for victims and their families and,
if they have time, to pray for me because this has not been an easy