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Geoghan ruling sparks anger

Alleged victims protest erasure of conviction

The state Appeals Court has erased the single conviction of John J. Geoghan for fondling a boy in a public swimming pool, and while the procedure is routine for criminal defendants who die during their appeals, alleged victims of one of the clergy sexual abuse scandal's central figures reacted angrily.

Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for many of Geoghan's accusers, said he is researching the case law that allows some convictions of deceased defendants, like Geoghan, to be dismissed. Garabedian said he will ask the Legislature to change the law "so this never happens again."

Geoghan was killed Aug. 23 in his cell at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley. Another inmate, Joseph L. Druce, has pleaded not guilty to murdering the defrocked priest.

For alleged victims of Geoghan, his 2002 conviction was a symbol that the legal system was finally holding him accountable for his actions. Yesterday, some said the decision to invalidate that conviction was an insult.

"It's not acknowledging the pain that the victims have incurred," said William Clarke of Concord. "It's just ignoring it and saying it doesn't matter."

Geoghan's death, he said, didn't seem reason enough to redeem the defrocked priest's record in the eyes of the law. "It seems to create a way for people to get away with it," said Clarke, who said he was abused in the 1960s.

Douglas Fage of Maine, another of Geoghan's alleged victims, said he felt vindicated by Geoghan's conviction. "It meant that things I've been telling people for years -- there it is," he said.

Fage said he was deeply frustrated by the ruling of the Appeals Court. "What they're saying is basically, he didn't do anything, legally, even though he was convicted of it," Fage said. "If that's not a technicality, what do you call it?"

Still, he said, the dismissal of the conviction didn't change the way he thought of Geoghan. "I know what the guy was," he said.

One of the jurors who helped to convict Geoghan in 2002 said yesterday that he understood -- but disagreed with -- the theory behind erasing the conviction. But the juror, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said the Appeals Court's action didn't change the truth about Geoghan.

"He was guilty then," the juror said. "He's always going to be guilty."

The Appeals Court issued its ruling after Geoghan's lawyer filed a death certificate this month and asked the court to dismiss his conviction. Prosecutors in Middlesex County, where Geoghan was convicted, did not oppose the motion.

The three justices who ruled on the case -- James McHugh, David A. Mills, and Mark V. Green -- said little about Geoghan in their short opinion that was entered Sept. 17. They noted that they were following the direction of the Supreme Judicial Court and that vacating the conviction is "customary practice of the courts in this Commonwealth under such circumstances."

Geoghan was convicted in January 2002 of indecent assault and battery for fondling the buttocks of a 10-year-boy in a public swimming pool. He was sentenced to serve six years of a nine- to 10-year prison sentence.

Although Geoghan had been accused of molesting nearly 150 children, the Middlesex case was the lone case that went to trial. Another criminal case was pending in Suffolk County. Geoghan's lawyer, David M. Skeels, could not be reached yesterday.

For most of Geoghan's alleged victims, too much time had elapsed since the abuse to file criminal charges. Instead, many sued the Archdiocese of Boston in civil court, saying church officials moved a known pedophile from parish to parish. These accusations of widespread abuse helped spark the Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Seth I. Horwitz, a spokesman for Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley, said the office didn't fight the motion because it knew vacating convictions in cases such as Geoghan's is common practice. The case law for making such provisions, Horwitz said, dates back to English common law.

"Obviously, our office is disappointed but we did know that this was going to occur," he said.

Court officials said they don't keep track of orders like the one vacating Geoghan's conviction. But, they said, such orders are handed down several times a year.

In 1997, the Legislature rejected a bill, like the one Garabedian said he will propose, that would have blocked courts from cleansing the records of prisoners who die before their appeals are heard. The bill was proposed after John C. Salvi III, who killed two women in two Brookline health clinics in 1994, committed suicide in prison. After his death, his first-degree murder convictions were dismissed.

Garabedian said yesterday's action complicated the psychological healing of Geoghan's victims.

"My clients are extremely disappointed," he said. "For many of them, it's as though their coming forward and revealing abuse by Father John J. Geoghan, the criminal trial, and the guilty verdict never existed. It leaves them with a hollow feeling."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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