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Cardinal Announces Defrocking of Priest Accused of Molestation

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 residence.

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 States.

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 time."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests