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Spotlight Report

Archdiocese sped retirement process

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 1/28/2002

By the time John J. Geoghan was defrocked in 1998, he had been retired from the priesthood for more than a year, a move he ostensibly requested "for reasons of health" in a letter to Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

But previously secret internal church documents show the Archdiocese of Boston coaxed Geoghan to retire as part of a legal maneuver designed to shield the church from monetary claims by victims of Geoghan's sexual abuse. Among the documents are handwritten notes and a subsequent letter summarizing an October 1996 meeting at which Geoghan was urged to request "senior priest retirement status" in hopes his retirement would spur an out-of-court settlement of a looming lawsuit.

"My role there was to convince Father Geoghan to request Senior Priest/Retirement status, with the hope that this would raise the likelihood of an out-of-court settlement in the impending action against him," wrote the Rev. William F. Murphy, the church official charged with persuading Geoghan to cooperate, in an Oct. 21, 1996, memo to Law marked "personal and confidential."

"The urgency is a result of a request through the court for his complete file," he continued. "Release of his file would be most damaging to him and involve widespread media coverage. An out-of-court settlement would keep his file private."

The handwritten notes, whose author could not be determined, appear to summarize a meeting attended by Murphy and Geoghan that occurred in October 1996 at Southdown, an Ontario treatment facility for troubled priests. The notes, reflecting the view of the archdiocese, began, "We're interested in preserving the dignity of your priesthood and giving you the freedom to minister as openly as possible."

The phrase "threatened by lawsuit" appeared next, followed by the notations "publicity" and "ruin of reputation." It then read "lawsuit can be averted by OOC settlement," followed by "we need to be in an advantageous position."

"We need your cooperation," the note continued. Several numbered items follow, including: "ask for SP/R status"; "it will give Garabedian one less thing to use as a weapon in negotiations," a reference to lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented more than 100 people allegedly molested by Geoghan; and "it will take you off the firing line."

Murphy's persuasive efforts apparently worked. On Oct. 19, 1996, Geoghan sent Law a handwritten three-sentence letter asking that he be retired "for reasons of health."

The documents were found among thousands of pages of documents compiled in the civil suits against Geoghan, the archdiocese, Law, and other officials. They were made public last week by court order after the Globe sought their release.

But Geoghan's retirement posed a financial conundrum for the church: He was not old enough to retire officially when he was granted senior priest retirement status in December 1996.

Murphy raised the age problem in a Nov. 18, 1996, memo: "At 61, Father Geoghan is too young to retire. Certainly the Cardinal may grant him Retirement Status. If he does, however, a precedent will have been set for retirement before the age of 65."

The issue of how to pay Geoghan was resolved when Bishop William F. Murphy -- a different William F. Murphy -- announced Geoghan would be declared "permanently disabled," allowing the church to fund his retirement from its "clergy medical fund" until he turned 65, according to a Dec. 4, 1996, memo. At 65, Geoghan could be paid from the "clergy pension and retirement fund," the memo said.

Bishop Murphy now heads a diocese that includes much of Long Island, N.Y.

Law granted Geoghan's retirement eight days later. "It is unusual for a man of your age to be granted this status," Law acknowledged in his Dec. 12, 1996, letter to Geoghan. "However, your particular situation makes it advisable. . . . God bless you, Jack."

This story ran on page A6 of the Boston Globe on 1/28/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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