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Abusive Ex-Priest, John Geoghan, Is Killed in Prison

August 24, 2003

John J. Geoghan, the former priest whose abuse of children over decades opened the door for a scandal that shook the Roman Catholic Church, was strangled by another inmate in a Massachusetts state prison, officials said yesterday.

Mr. Geoghan, who was defrocked in 1998, was serving a sentence of 9 to 10 years at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, a medium-security state prison 40 miles northwest of Boston.

Another inmate, Joseph L. Druce, 37, will be charged with murder, John J. Conte, the Worcester County district attorney, said. An autopsy is to be conducted Monday, but "preliminary indications" showed that Mr. Geoghan, 68, had been strangled, Mr. Conte said.

In January 2002, Mr. Geoghan was convicted of groping a 10-year-old boy in a pool and given the maximum sentence. Other criminal charges were pending, as well as civil cases involving more than 130 people who said he had abused them.

His case was among hundreds involving clergy members, but the extent of his crimes and the mountain of church documents released in lawsuits against him turned him into a symbol of the church's sexual abuse scandal. "In many ways he was a worst-case scenario because he was a serial sexual predator whose behavior was facilitated by the hierarchy of the Archdiocese of Boston, and the worst judgments were made in his case," Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at Boston College, said.

His case also showed the degree to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy knew about problem priests and shuttled them among parishes, showing what victims said was more concern for the church's reputation than for the safety of children.

"Abusive priests were not news particularly," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "But with Geoghan, for the first time ever there was undeniable evidence that bishop after bishop after bishop knew and did virtually nothing."

Mr. Geoghan's abuses date back to his first assignment as a parish priest, at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Saugus, an area north of Boston where he served from his ordination in 1962 until 1967. And they continued until the 1980's through a swath of suburban Boston parishes, in the bedrooms of his parishioners' children, at his family beachfront home, while he prayed, even at a Boston Red Sox game, victims said.

All along, bishops and cardinals received warnings from parents and some priests. He was sent for psychiatric treatment and returned to ministry. For their part, the bishops said they were only following the accepted psychiatric wisdom.

In the end, the revelations in the sexual abuse scandal led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was succeeded by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley on July 30. The Massachusetts attorney general released a report last month saying that at least 789 children and probably more than 1,000 have been sexually abused by 250 priests and other church workers in the Archdiocese of Boston since 1940. The report also criticized many former aides to Cardinal Law now serving elsewhere, including Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, who will step down this fall for a successor, and William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, called Mr. Geoghan's death tragic, The Associated Press said.

"The Archdiocese of Boston offers prayer for the repose of John's soul," Father Coyne said, "and extends its prayers in consolation to his beloved sister, Cathy, at this time of personal loss."

While Mr. Geoghan achieved nationwide notoriety, the abuses by James Porter of the Fall River, Mass., diocese became widely known in the early 1990's, and the same was true of Rudolph Kos in the Dallas Diocese about five years later. Another notorious priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, 72, was indicted last June on charges that he raped and assaulted four boys at a Newton, Mass., church from 1979 to 1989.

But the Geoghan revelations showed the extent of the archdiocese's actions regarding abusive priests. They became clear when a judge ordered it to release files in abuse lawsuits in January 2002. And as the scandal began growing in Boston, scrutiny of dioceses around the country turned up similar accusations of cover-ups and led to the suspension of more than 300 priests.

The scandal led to an extraordinary summoning of the nation's cardinals to the Vatican for a meeting with Pope John Paul II the next April. Several months later, the nation's bishops adopted sweeping guidelines to protect children.

"The entire country, I would argue, and certainly every single Catholic, owes an enormous debt to the men and women who he victimized and were strong enough to come forward," Mr. Clohessy said of Mr. Geoghan. But he added, "Despite the horrific damage he caused, no one deserves to die like this."

A lawyer for many of Mr. Geoghan's victims, Mitchell Garabedian of Boston, said that 147 people had come to him since 1994 saying they were abused by Mr. Geoghan. He said his clients would rather have seen Mr. Geoghan serve time in jail and undergo more trials, so more details about his activity could be made public.

"Many of my clients have never expressed any vindictiveness whatsoever," he said.

Mr. Garabedian said 26 people who said they were abused by Mr. Geoghan were the subject of settlement talks between lawyers for 542 victims of sexual abuse and the archdiocese. The archdiocese offered $55 million to resolve those claims on Aug. 8, and made a second offer of $65 million last week. Last year, Mr. Garabedian reached a $10 million settlement with the archdiocese for 86 victims of Mr. Geoghan. Mr. Garabedian said the civil cases would continue.

The man accused of killing Mr. Geoghan, Mr. Druce, was serving a life sentence. Mr. Conte said that he received the sentence in 1989 for murder, armed robbery and other counts, The Associated Press reported. In 2001, Mr. Druce was charged with an anthrax hoax, the news agency added.

Mr. Geoghan was attacked shortly before noon and was pronounced dead at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Alliance Hospital in Leominster at 1:17 p.m., the prosecutor said.

Professor Pope, the theologian, said it was troubling that an inmate convicted of one of the most despised crimes among prisoners — sexual abuse of a child — was left vulnerable.

"It's an irony that his criminal behavior was facilitated by a church that was negligent, and now his death was facilitated by a criminal justice system that was negligent," he said.

Mr. Geoghan had been living in a protective custody unit, which held 24 inmates, a Department of Correction spokeswoman, Kelly Nantel, said. Inmates in the unit sleep in individual cells, but can mingle during the day, Ms. Nantel said, and are placed based on the nature of their convictions, their notoriety or whether they have enemies.

Phil Saviano, founder of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network, said he worried many of his victims might feel responsible for Mr. Geoghan's death.

"He needed to be off the streets and away from children," he said, "but that prison sentence was never meant to be a death sentence."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests