A curious twist in Geoghan case
Slaying could allow victims to collect
By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 10/25/2003
In life, imprisoned and virtually penniless, defrocked cleric John J. Geoghan could offer little in the way of financial compensation to the victims he sexually assaulted during his years as a Catholic priest.
But his Aug. 23 slaying at the hands of another inmate in the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley could represent a financial opportunity for Geoghan's victims, legal specialists say. If Geoghan's relatives decide not to sue the prison system for wrongful death, his victims -- as potential creditors -- would be next in line to sue.
Yet if they do, they must swallow the bitter irony that in order to win damages they must argue that their tormentor was himself a victim of abuse by prison personnel, lawyers said.
"I don't know if we've seen a case quite like this one before," said lawyer Charles A. Rosebrock, a specialist in trusts and estates with the Boston firm Nutter McClennen & Fish. "It's an ironic situation where you have very divergent interests."
Geoghan, who was 68 when he died, was accused of molesting more than 130 children over three decades. The West Roxbury native was repeatedly shuffled among parishes and treatment centers by his superiors, and the Archdiocese of Boston paid $10 million last year to settle the legal claims of 86 plaintiffs who sued the church over Geoghan's alleged abuse.
Many of those people also sued Geoghan individually, but never pressed for a judgment because it was a moot point, since he had no money.
In early 1995, just months after state prosecutors had begun an investigation into allegations that he had molested children, Geoghan sold his half-ownership in two family homes to a trust controlled by his sister for $1 each, records show. He was declared indigent by a judge for his criminal trial and was represented by a public defender.
The current status of his estate is unclear.
Suffolk County Register of Probate Richard Iannella said that if Geoghan's relatives had wanted to register a will or name an executor of his estate, they would have had to do so in the county of his last residence, prior to his being incarcerated. Geoghan was believed to have split his time between the family home in West Roxbury, in Suffolk County, and a vacation home in Scituate, which is in Plymouth County.
Geoghan's sister, Catherine T. Geoghan, did not return telephone messages left at her West Roxbury home.
Probate court officials said yesterday that nothing had been filed in Geoghan's name in either Suffolk or Plymouth counties. The lack of a filing, according to legal specialists, appears to open a legal avenue for Geoghan's victims to intervene.
Under state law, if no relative steps forward within 30 days, other interested parties, including creditors, can petition the court to name an executor for the estate, said Peter E. Bernardin, a Danvers attorney who specializes in probate law.
As potential beneficiaries of Geoghan's estate, his victims could then ask a judge to force the executor, who would most likely be a neutral third party, to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the state as one of Geoghan's potential assets, legal specialists said.
Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney who represented the 86 alleged victims and relatives who reached the $10 million settlement with the archdiocese last year, said that he is talking with his clients about how to proceed.
"It's definitely something we're considering, something we're looking into," Garabedian said.
A decision to go forward would probably involve several major considerations, lawyers said, including whether or not Geoghan's victims could stomach the idea of arguing on his behalf.
In addition, wrongful death awards are often based largely on how much money the deceased would have earned if he or she had lived. Since Geoghan was a 68-year-old former priest serving six years of a nine- to 10-year prison sentence, an award would probably be based solely on the amount of pain and suffering that a jury believed he suffered at the hands of fellow inmate Joseph L. Druce, who is charged with killing Geoghan.
Damage awards against the state, however, are capped by law at $100,000, an amount that would result in miniscule awards after being spread among Geoghan's alleged victims, lawyers said. Yet Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney with the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 260 people suing the archdiocese, said that lawyers could get around the $100,000 cap by bringing a federal claim that Geoghan's civil rights were violated.
"There may well be a civil rights claim here," MacLeish said. "No matter how despicable [Geoghan's] acts, in our society we don't allow people to be executed in that fashion."