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Victims could now collect

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Convicted killer says Geoghan molested him

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 11/17/2002


James Costello, an inmate at the state prison in Norfolk, is serving a life term for murder. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)


Costello as an altar boy in the 1970s. He claims he was molested by the Rev. John Geoghan, below.

(Globe Staff Photo / John Blanding)
I would say of the children, Jim was the most responsive and eager to get involved,'' the Rev. John J. Geoghan told the judge in 1981. ''I took him myself for instruction and he was very proud of it.''

Geoghan, infamous today as a pedophile and convicted child molester, was then just a parish priest speaking up for a former altar boy gone terribly wrong: At only 15, James M. Costello had been charged in the horrific slaying of an elderly Roslindale woman.

Geoghan urged that the boy be tried as a juvenile. But the judge was unmoved, and Costello would be convicted as an adult and sentenced to three life terms without possibility of parole.

Now, Costello is mounting a bid for commutation of his sentence based on something Geoghan didn't say in 1981: That the priest molested him, just as he had other children in the Costello family. It was Geoghan's repeated abuse, Costello now says, that led him to kill.

"What Geoghan did to me in no way excuses my involvement in the horrifying murder of Palmira Piciulo. I knew what I was doing was terrible and wrong and I did it anyway," Costello said in a Globe interview. "But Geoghan led me down a path I probably wouldn't have gone down. I was mad at the world. I had nowhere to turn."

Commutation would make parole an eventual possibility, and that, his lawyers argue, is only fair. Helen Holcomb, of the firm of Cunha and Holcomb, said that if Geoghan's alleged abuse of Costello had been known in 1981, Costello would probably have been tried as a juvenile and be free today.

"Geoghan had information that could have kept Jimmy in the juvenile system but he wasn't about to reveal it," Holcomb said. "Geoghan did him in when he molested him, but he really did him in during the legal proceedings." The state parole board is expected to decide whether to hold a hearing on Costello's commutation request later this month.

David Lisak, a psychologist who evaluated Costello and filed a report with his petition to the parole board, said, "There's no question in my mind that his life and the way it was utterly derailed is very much linked to what Geoghan did to him."

But Costello's plea for a chance at parole is certain to arouse controversy because of the grisly nature of his crime.

On April 6, 1981, Costello and an older friend, who is also serving a life sentence, killed Piciulo in her third-floor apartment on Hyde Park Avenue for pocket money and jewelry. Then they partied downstairs with two other accomplices for two days, until the body of the 83-year-old woman was found.

Evidence at trial also showed that Costello struck the first blow, hitting Piciulo with a piece of cable. Costello and his friend, who was five years older, continued to beat Piciulo, then suffocated her with a pillow before turning on the gas and leaving her for dead.

John A. Kiernan, who prosecuted Costello under then-Suffolk District Attorney Newman A. Flanagan, said he remembers the Costello case well. "Palmira Piciulo was a kindly, compassionate woman who believed these young people were befriending her and were deserving of her kindness when in fact they were a wolf pack masquerading as human beings," Kiernan said.

Kiernan, who was chief of Flanagan's homicide division and served on then-Governor Edward J. King's Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, also said he would have pushed for a sentence of life without parole even if he knew of Geoghan's alleged abuse of Costello. "I don't care where you come from; there is no excuse," Kiernan said.

Others question whether it is possible to single out the alleged abuse by Geoghan from other factors in the turbulent Costello household that might have turned him to crime.

Costello and his four brothers and sisters had been abandoned by their father and were often left to fend for themselves while their mother struggled through alcoholism and night work as a bar waitress.

"I'm not arguing that the molestation couldn't have been a factor or isn't something that should be considered, but I think it's a big leap to say that without the molestation there would have been no murder," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

But A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and a psychotherapist who has treated victims of clergy sexual abuse as well as abusive priests, said it is rare but not unheard of for victims of sexual abuse to express their rage through murder or suicide. "You're dealing with an extreme, but you're still within the spectrum of consequences," Sipe said.

And Robert A. Sherman, a lawyer with the firm Greenberg Traurig who is representing Costello in a civil lawsuit, agreed, noting that five more of the firm's 300 clergy sexual abuse clients are serving prison terms.

"We know that some of the consequences of sexual abuse include a defiance of authority, engaging in high-risk behavior, and substance abuse, so it's not a great leap to see how somebody who has been abused could run afoul of the law," Sherman said.

Costello's brothers and sisters and his mother have already received cash settlements from the Boston archdiocese because of sexual abuse by Geoghan. Two months ago, Costello's older brother and sister each received $100,000 of the $10 million settlement the archdiocese reached with 86 Geoghan victims. And two years ago, Costello's younger brother and sister, and his mother, each received cash payments to settle their claims against the pedophile priest and the church.

Costello said he did not file a civil lawsuit along with the rest of his family because the lawyer who represented them would not take his case, due to his criminal conviction. But he was a Geoghan victim, he says. And to his family, he seemed to be Geoghan's favorite. "He was Geoghan's pet," said Dorothy Costello, his mother.

At the 1981 hearing on whether Costello should be tried as an adult, Geoghan testified that he "determined that Jim had emotional needs, physical needs, spiritual needs, psychological needs," and saw the boy "on average of once or twice a week" for at least three years, beginning when Costello was 9 or 10 years old.

Geoghan said he initially approached the Costello family at the urging of another Jamaica Plain priest, the Rev. Robert V. Gale, who pleaded not guilty to four counts of child rape earlier this year. Gale has not been accused of molesting any of the Costello children. But the fatherless and impoverished Costello family fit the profile of many who were targeted by Geoghan and other priests who have molested minors in the Boston archdiocese.

Dorothy Costello said she welcomed Geoghan into her home as a father figure for her three sons. The interest of a priest in her children was rare source of pride, she added, particularly after Geoghan chose Costello to be an altar boy. "In those days priests were next to God," she said. "Who would have thought they'd molest a child?"

In a written statement to the parole board and in two Globe interviews, Costello said Geoghan began molesting him when he was about 9 years old during car rides for ice cream, a tactic Geoghan used with other victims. "He'd reach over and push the door lock down and bump me and touch me down there. At first, what he was doing didn't even register," Costello said.

Later, Costello said in his written statement, Geoghan invited him into the church rectory and insisted they take a shower together so that Geoghan could show him the proper way to clean himself. "He put soap all over me, including my privates and buttocks, telling me I needed to keep these areas clean," Costello recalled. "He also soaped himself up and pressed up behind me. ... I could feel him pushing against me. He never actually raped me, but he was rubbing against me from behind."

Frightened, Costello jumped out of the shower and sat on Geoghan's bed. Then Geoghan fondled him and talked to him about masturbation. "Finally, we got dressed and he said he would take me home and buy me some ice cream since I `was his best altar boy,"' Costello said.

Costello said he never told his mother about details of the incident because she placed a high value on his status as an altar boy, even though she didn't attend Mass. But he was so angry he attempted to set fire to his home, so his family would be forced to move away from St. Andrew parish and its predatory priest.

And whenever he told his mother he was going out to attend the practice sessions for altar boys or to serve Mass, he would instead hit the streets with older teenagers who introduced him to drugs and petty burglaries. It was perhaps two years, Costello said, between the shower incident and the day in April 1981 when he murdered Piciulo.

"Jimmy was a good altar boy and then all of a sudden he was a very confused kid," recalled Gail Costello, James's older sister and the oldest of the Costello children. "I think Geoghan messed with his head until he didn't know whether he was coming or going."

Indeed, all the Costello children, particularly the boys, led hard lives since encountering Geoghan and enduring his molestations. John Costello, James's older brother, has served time in county jail for a variety of offenses; Francis Costello, James's younger brother, served a lengthy Texas prison term for armed bank robbery. And Dorothy Costello, who shares painful memories with her children, said Geoghan's legacy endures. "My kids are still paying," she said.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 11/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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