The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A troubled life spent exploiting vocation

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 8/24/2003

John Geoghan's death yesterday was a violent close to a life that was troubled from the moment the West Roxbury native started down the path toward a priesthood in which he relentlessly exploited the prestige of his collar to prey on children.

His earliest superiors considered Geoghan, then a 19-year-old seminarian, immature, emotionally distant, and a problem student. They wondered whether he would ever be ordained.

But Geoghan, in a pattern that would repeat itself for more than 30 years, learned that he could count on the help of his superiors.

His uncle, the late Monsignor Mark H. Keohane, intervened on his nephew's behalf and smoothed the way for Geoghan's ordination and, ultimately, a priestly life in which his attacks on boys became one of the most closely guarded secrets held by the leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston.

The assaults, and the church's reaction to them, would ultimately drive Geoghan from the priesthood and into prison, help force the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law last year, and become a key element in the sexual abuse scandal that has been called the worst crisis in the history of the US Catholic Church.

As church officials offered prayers for ''the repose of John's soul'' and extended sympathies to his sister, Catherine, some of Geoghan's victims, recalling the smiling young cleric who lured them to his rectory bedroom, offered no condolences.

''Wow,'' said Frank Leary when he was told of Geoghan's death yesterday. Then he firmly added, ''Good.''

Leary, the fifth of six children raised by a single mother, was 13 years old when he first encountered Geoghan in 1974 outside the rectory of St. Andrew's Church in Jamaica Plain.

Leary said Geoghan offered him lemonade on a hot August day and then insisted that the boy come upstairs to his room in the rectory to see the priest's stamp collection.

''He was touching me, fondling me,'' Leary recalled in an interview last year. ''I'm frozen. I didn't know what the hell was going on.''

But Geoghan's superiors did.

They received complaints about his abuse. They sent him to treatment centers, where three times Geoghan was clinically classified a pedophile. But, armed with doctors' recommendations and clean bills of health, they sent him back into parishes where he had access to boys.

Especially in families where the father was not present, Geoghan would show up at bedtime to tuck children into their beds and read them stories.

''It was not the intention of these innocent youths to arouse me,'' Geoghan said in one of his psychiatric evaluations. ''They were just happy to have a father figure with their own father being so angry and distant from them.''

Some fellow priests found him distant, not the kind of rectory companion they could warm up to.

''I found him different, I must say,'' the Rev. Thomas W. Moriarty, who was pastor of St. Paul's Church in Hingham, where Geoghan served from 1967 to 1974, said in a 2001 deposition.

''I mean, I just didn't know how to react to him. He was different . . . something is wrong,'' said Moriarty.

By the mid-1990s, as police and prosecutors began to close in on Geoghan, top diocesan officials had finally conceded that he was an incurable child molester. ''A pedophile, a liar, a manipulator,'' the Rev. Brian M. Flatley, a top lieutentant to Law, pronounced him.

In the summer of 1998, Law revealed that he had defrocked Geoghan, who by then had been accused of sexually molesting more than 50 children over three decades. The extraordinary punitive move was sanctioned by Pope John Paul II.

''This man can never again present himself as a priest,'' Law said. The cardinal said he personally informed Geoghan of his defrocking. ''He understood the decision and the ramifications of it,'' he said.

Stripped of his priesthood, Geoghan lost his freedom early last year after he was convicted of indecently touching a 10-year-old boy at a public pool a decade ago.

''Where am I going now?'' Geoghan asked as he was being led out of the courtroom after his conviction in January 2002.

The priest was going to prison in Concord. By then, he was accused of molesting nearly 150 children since the 1960s.

After the verdict was returned, some of Geoghan's victims celebrated in the hallway.

''This is a moment of joy for me,'' said Mark Keane. ''He's a sick man.''

Keane and other victims smiled as Geoghan, the personification of Boston's massive clergy abuse crisis, was led away for his new life behind bars.

''His was the most flamboyant case of serial sexual molestation by a clergyman, and the way he got passed on from one parish to another became the image of what not to do,'' said Stephen J. Pope, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. ''The name John Geoghan now stands as a symbol for the sexual abuse of clergy and the hierarchy not taking precautions against sexual abuse.''

Globe staff writer Michael Paulson contributed to this story. Thomas Farragher can be reached at

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