The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Geoghan's death voids conviction, prosecutors say

By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff, 8/27/2003

Upsetting victims of clergy sexual abuse, prosecutors who won a guilty verdict against John J. Geoghan for molesting a 10-year-old boy said yesterday his conviction will be erased because the former priest died while appealing the case.

Case law dictates that the court where Geoghan was tried will be ordered to invalidate his 2002 conviction, said Emily LaGrassa, spokeswoman for the Middlesex district attorney's office.

"The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that if a defendant dies while his appeal is pending, the indictments are to be remanded to the trial court with an order that they be dismissed," she said.

When he was found guilty in the 1992 indecent assault and battery case, Geoghan's conviction was seen as an enormous victory for victims of clergy sex abuse, and a vindication of claims that went unheard for decades. It was his lone conviction, although he had been accused of molesting nearly 150 children during his decades as a priest. He was awaiting trial in another child abuse case.

"The guilty verdict is a symbol which allowed many clients to regain some sort of self-esteem, dignity, and freedom from unnecessary guilt," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who represents abuse victims. "The victims of John J. Geoghan will be extremely disappointed by the conviction being invalidated. It is another strange twist to a very strange and eerie saga."

Robert Sherman, a lawyer who also represents clergy abuse victims, added: "I think that the technical quirk in the law only serves to revictimize the victims. The satisfaction they received in knowing their complaints were vindicated by a jury now gets nullified by a technicality, and that does no justice to anybody."

Geoghan, 68, was murdered Saturday in his cell at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, allegedly by Joseph L. Druce, a fellow inmate who told investigators he had plotted the killing for at least a month.

Neither Geoghan's death, nor the nullification of his conviction, will have an effect on the civil cases against the church stemming from clergy sexual abuse, said Sherman, but erasing the conviction will be a step back for some victims. The jury's guilty verdict was a first hopeful sign that the legal system was behind the victims of alleged abuse, said William Gately, one of the New England coordinators of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

"I'm upset because victims need tangible awareness of the guilt of perpetrators," he said. "The crimes committed by John Geoghan are so profound and so damaging that they warrant a sentence of guilty. The lack of that can create for some a lack of resolution, both in an emotional and legal sense."

David Clohessy, national executive director of SNAP, as the network is called, said in one sense, the invalidation of Geoghan's conviction is "immaterial," but added it could do emotional harm to victims, particularly those yet to come forward.

"On an emotional level, I'm sure many of his victims will feel some degree of hurt and betrayal yet again," Clohessy said. "I also worry about the impact of this kind of news on the countless victims out there who have never reported their victimization to civil or criminal authorities, and who fight the pessimistic view that justice will never be done. My first thought is for some victim, sitting by the phone, deciding whether or not to call the police or prosecutors, and hearing this news and throwing up their hands and saying, `See, what's the use?' "

The conviction on the 1992 molestation, for which Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin sentenced Geoghan to 9 to 10 years in a maximum-security prison, was an early sign to victims of alleged abuse that justice could be done, Clohessy said.

"It was very important because it shows that no matter how long ago the crime took place, no matter how aggressive the church's defense is, that sometimes, justice can prevail and abuse of kids can be prevented," he said. "Essentially, it helped send the message that regardless of what church leaders do or don't do, the civil authorities are finally beginning to treat abuse by clergy just like abuse by any other person."

But lawyer Eric MacLeish Jr., whose firm represents hundreds of alleged victims of clergy abuse, including some who have made accusations against Geoghan, said the victims to whom he has spoken are "appalled that this man died under these circumstances . . . but no one expressed disappointment over the fact that Geoghan's record has been erased."

"I don't think it means anything," he said. "He's dead, and it's a tragedy that he died [this way], and the Department of Correction has a great deal of explaining to do. I don't understand people who say `We're upset now that it means our allegations are not credible' because a conviction is technically invalidated."

In 1997, the Legislature tried to block the courts from clearing the records of inmates who die before their appeals are heard, after the convictions of John Salvi III were erased following his prison suicide. Salvi shot two women to death when he opened fire in two Brookline women's health clinics in 1994. The legislation, sponsored by then-Senator William R. Keating, now the Norfolk district attorney, passed in the Senate but not the House. Keating did not return phone calls yesterday. Requests for comment left at the home and office of Geoghan's attorney were not returned by last night.

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