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Spotlight Report

History of case may have influenced severity of term

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 2/21/2002


John Geoghan reacts during his sentencing. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)

 Related stories
Geoghan receives 9 to 10 years
History may have influenced term

Had John Geoghan been a layman with no history of sexual abuse, he probably would have received a sentence of probation and counseling on his conviction yesterday for a single count of indecent assault and battery, legal specialists and veteran defense lawyers said.

But Geoghan was a defrocked Catholic priest whose documented history of treatment for pedophilia and alleged sexual abuse of scores of other boys ran to 40 pages in a sentencing memo given to Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin by state prosecutors.

That history, and a nebulous legal concept called "relevant conduct," were probably the chief reasons that Hamlin handed Geoghan a 9- to 10-year prison term for fondling the buttocks of a 10-year-old boy in a Waltham swimming pool in 1991, lawyers said. Geoghan will be eligible for parole in six years, but will be subjected to strict mandatory supervision after his release.

Lawyers interviewed yesterday agreed that Hamlin's sentence, while far more drastic than usual sentences for the same crime and even tougher than proposed new state sentencing guidelines, was well within her power under state law. Some, however, disagreed on whether it was appropriate.

"Judges have very wide discretion on what they can consider for sentencing," said Boston attorney Martin Rosenthal, a longtime member of the State Sentencing Commission.

Part of that discretion, Rosenthal said, is considering not only the defendant's actions when the crime was committed but also any other conduct that the judge deems "relevant" to the consideration of how lenient or severe a sentence a convicted person should receive.

Normally, relevant conduct is one of several factors taken into account at sentencing, including a defendant's prior criminal record.

Geoghan's conviction was his first, however. Legal experts said Hamlin demonstrated just how much leeway judges have when she made it clear that she was considering what she had learned about Geoghan's alleged conduct over several decades, not just his actions on one day at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club.

At sentencing yesterday, Hamlin said she considered many factors, including Geoghan's diagnosis as a pedophile, his past admissions that he abused boys, and his use of his position of trust to engage in what she called "reprehensible behavior."

"There is no doubt the defendant is dangerous," she said. "This court feels rehabilitation is not something that is in this man's immediate future."

She also said Geoghan demonstrated "a total lack of concern for the damage his sexual molestation may have done." She added that Geoghan had a mode of operation: "to use his position [as a priest] to target numerous and vulnerable boys."

Yet Hamlin also said Geoghan was being sentenced for his own acts and not because of the larger sex abuse scandal facing the Catholic Church.

Longtime Boston defense lawyer Joseph Oteri called Hamlin's sentence appropriate, but said he believed that the judge must have been affected, at least subconsciously, by the furor over the molestation scandal.

"Judges are human; they get up in the morning, they read newspapers, they read magazines, they watch TV news programs," Oteri said. "You couldn't possibly exist in Massachusetts as a sentient being without knowing what's going on with the church."

"But I think she did a wonderful job; it [the sentence] was not only proper, it was very well thought out," Oteri said. "You have to consider relevant conduct. He can't just be sentenced just for the crime in front of him."

Yet William Leahy, chief of Boston's Committee for Public Counsel Services, said that even though Hamlin's sentence appears to be technically legal, it wasn't necessarily proper.

Currently, a state judge's sentencing decisions can only be appealed for "abuse of discretion." Because judges' discretion is so wide, lawyers like Leahy and Rosenthal said, it is an extremely high hurdle to overcome.

In Geoghan's case, Leahy said, the disparity between the offense and the sentence was much too wide. No matter how popular this sentence might be with the public, he said, runaway discretion by judges at sentencing can seriously erode the constitutional protections that all defendants are given at arrest and trial.

This story ran on page A27 of the Boston Globe on 2/22/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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