First of three parts
As a crude noose tightened around his neck, John J. Geoghan's face reddened and he gasped a final, fruitless plea for mercy.
"It doesn't have to happen like this," Geoghan begged, his attacker, Joseph L. Druce, said.
"Your days are over," Druce said he told Geoghan. "No more children for you, pal."
That exchange -- contained in Druce's statement to State Police, which was reviewed by the Globe -- came as Geoghan lay sprawled face down on the floor of his cell, 20 feet from the guard duty station inside one of the most secure units at Massachusetts' most secure prison. Then, authorities say, Druce began to squeeze the life out of the frail 68-year-old defrocked priest.
A Correction Department officer, alerted to the attack by two inmates, called for emergency backup. He screamed at Druce to open the door he'd jammed from inside.
"Don't hurt me," Druce told the responding officers, according to an official incident report obtained by the Globe. "It's not against you."
The cell's door was pried open. Geoghan was not breathing and had no pulse. Blood stained the cell floor.
Correction officers and medical staff attached a defibrillator and performed nonstop cardiopulmonary resuscitation. But Geoghan, imprisoned since early 2002 after being convicted for groping a 10-year-old boy in a public swimming pool in Waltham, did not respond.
"You guys can take your time," Druce told responding officers, according to one inmate's account. "It doesn't matter. He's dead already."
Eighty minutes after the Aug. 23 attack at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, Geoghan was pronounced dead at a hospital in Leominster. It was a sudden, spectacular end for a man whose attacks on children spanned 30 years.
In death, something new had been added to Geoghan's epitaph: The cruel, rapacious abuser, the centerpiece of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in Boston, had become a kind of victim. An inmate with a bull's-eye on his back, he was failed by an institution that bungled its basic duty to keep him safe.
To those whose paths he crossed, the image of Geoghan as a victim may never achieve sharp focus.
To his earliest seminary instructors, Geoghan was a young man whose marked immaturity led them to question whether he was fit for seminary life and the priesthood.
To some single mothers of modest means, he was the smiling presence in the back of the church on Sundays who would often appear at their homes around suppertime. He would help out with the children's baths, read them bedtime stories, and then tuck them in for the night. To the mothers, unaware that their parish priest was fondling the children through their bedclothes, he seemed a godsend.
To church officials, who for years made Geoghan's serial abuse one of the most closely held secrets in the Archdiocese of Boston, he was "a pedophile, a liar, a manipulator." He needed to be stopped, they belatedly concluded.
As police and prosecutors closed in on Geoghan, beginning in the mid-1990s, he took comfort in a small circle of friends, his family, and especially his sister Catherine, who shared with him a disdain for his accusers.
In February 2002, when Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin sentenced him to 9 to 10 years in state prison -- the maximum allowed -- she made it clear that she knew Geoghan's abuse went far beyond the swimming pool incident. The ex-priest, she said as she imposed the sentence, was a threat to any young boy "who may have the misfortune to be in contact with him."
As he was being led out of the courtroom after his conviction, Geoghan asked a court officer: "Where am I going now?"
What lay ahead was an incarceration he would consider hellish.
Placed in protective custody at MCI-Concord, Geoghan said it was not the inmates he feared, but a few Correction officers who, he said, seemed determined to exact a cruel brand of jailhouse justice.
When he was moved last spring to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the gleaming new maximum-security prison on the Lancaster-Shirley line, Geoghan said he was accepting stricter limits on his freedom in exchange for a sense of greater security. It was a sense that would prove fatally wrong.
Within weeks, Druce, a convicted killer with a white supremacist past, would move into the cell next door.
And within months, Druce's attack on Geoghan would make the former priest the central figure in a crisis of a different kind, provoking one of the most sweeping examinations of the Massachusetts prison system in state history.
"I know John did wrong," said the Rev. Maurice V. Connolly, one of Geoghan's seminary classmates. "But as I read more about the treatment he got, it was bad that that was allowed to go on in prison. John was a little old man at that point. He was kind of shriveled and frail, and he was not the type who could really stick up for himself. . .
"Now I hope his death will bring about some reform in the prison system," Connolly said.
A cold, crude culture
The protective custody unit at MCI-Concord, a dank warren of cells on three tiers, is home to sex offenders, informants, and other prisoners whose safety can't be guaranteed among the general population of more common criminals.
Geoghan's presence on the unit brought out the worst in some of the guards, his fellow inmates said.
For sport, inmates told lawyers, Geoghan was strip-searched and forced to stand naked for extended periods of time. His relationship with his sister was mocked. After guards searched his room, "it looked like a bomb hit it," one inmate said.
"A few inmates . . . said I was a `poster boy' for [Correction officers] there, many making threats of violence toward me," Geoghan wrote to a lawyer last April. "I believe it, from what I experienced."
What he had experienced since his January 2002 conviction was a cold, crude culture a world away from the comfort and deference he once enjoyed in rectory parlors in and around Boston. He was laughed at. Several times a day, he was ordered to stand for a formal prison count. His mail was opened, his phone calls monitored. His toilet was next to his bed. His $1.50 haircuts were utilitarian.
By regulation, he was issued five pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks, a pair of pants, a shirt, and one religious book. His food was tasteless and, he suspected, tampered with. Each day he made his bed as required, taking care to tautly tuck the corners of his sheets with military precision. More than most, he had trouble surrendering himself to the ordinary indignities of his new life behind bars.
"Here's someone who was catered to from day one in the priesthood and throughout his years as a priest, and now he goes from being served hand-to-mouth to having to do everything for himself," said Ed Ahearn, a Correction officer and treasurer of the 4,800-member Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union.
Indeed, Geoghan struggled to leave his old world behind.
"He wanted the door held for him," a Concord inmate, also a convicted sex offender, told an attorney in September. "He wanted to be first in line. He just could not adjust to life in prison."
The inmate's impressions of Geoghan, like those of 40 other prisoners interviewed by attorneys for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, were recently made available to the Globe. In most cases, inmates approved the release of their statements with the condition that their names not be published.
The Globe also used internal prison documents; correspondence with prisoners; and interviews with inmates, Correction officers, and Geoghan's friends and family to depict his life under the care, custody, and control of the Massachusetts Department of Correction.
The picture that emerges is that of a frail man content to spend his days quietly in his cell, but willing to stand up for himself when he believed he was being treated unfairly. Even if doing so made matters worse.
When he was out of his cell, Geoghan almost always was on the telephone. On the other end of the line, everyone assumed, was his sister Catherine, a retired kindergarten teacher and his staunchest defender.
At Concord, inmates said, Geoghan was an early riser, shaving each day shortly after awakening around 5 a.m. He said prayers before breakfast, meditated afterward, and spent much of his day reading in his cell, they said.
In the early weeks of his life at Concord, the crisis in the Catholic Church dominated the headlines and newscasts in Boston and then, as the scandal mushroomed, around the country.
"When his picture appeared on TV, Geoghan would say things like, `They're making up stories.' This turned a lot of guys off," one Concord sex offender told a visiting lawyer.
The way the former priest conducted himself during prison chapel services irritated his fellow Catholic inmates. It was, they believed, as if Geoghan considered himself still worthy of the black-and-white Roman collar and colorful vestments he had disgraced.
"Geoghan still thought of himself as a priest," one inmate told a Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services lawyer. "For example, Geoghan would celebrate the Mass under his breath along with the priest. At Easter, he would offer holy water to other prisoners. That was hard to swallow."
James R. Pingeon, director of litigation for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, who conducted many of the inmate interviews, said Geoghan's conduct violated a basic prison tenet.
"There were some people who didn't take it well that Geoghan would profess his innocence, because the ethic in prison is that you just shut up about your crime," Pingeon explained. "You don't talk about it openly and publicly."
One inmate, who said he opened peanut butter jars for a weakened Geoghan and helped the older man with his laundry, said he told the unit's most conspicuous prisoner that his "big mouth" was a sure sign he was not "prison smart."
"God is looking out for me," Geoghan replied, the inmate told a lawyer.
When he believed he was being harassed, Geoghan's frequent response would be: "God bless you," several inmates said. That attitude is perhaps why several fellow inmates said they took a special delight in watching Geoghan wince when they exploited his well-known distaste for the near-constant profanity that spiced prison discourse.
"People would sometimes tease Geoghan by swearing in front of him," Pingeon said. "And Geoghan would say, `Oh, you shouldn't use that language.' And they would deliberately come up and put their arm around him and say, `How you doing, [expletive]?' They did it because they sort of enjoyed getting a rise out of Geoghan. `He was a little highfalutin,' one prisoner told me."
If Geoghan could be the object of prison ridicule, at least one inmate -- also a sex offender -- worried about his safety. He said he tried to teach Geoghan to protect himself in his new world of arsonists, rapists, and thieves.
"[The inmate] told me the story of how he would sometimes go into Geoghan's cell at Concord, and Geoghan would be looking in his locker and would have his back to him," Pingeon said. "And [the inmate would be] sitting on the toilet in Geoghan's cell. Geoghan wouldn't know he was there. And then Geoghan would turn around and see him and say, `Oh, you're going to be the death of me!' And [the inmate] would do it, partly playing with him, but also to teach him the lesson that you've got to watch your back."
Enemies in uniform
If the goal of the protective custody unit was to keep Geoghan safe from other prisoners, it seemed to be working. But his enemies at Concord, Geoghan complained, carried Correction officer badges.
"I do not recall him ever complaining to me about his treatment at the hands of other inmates," said Geoffrey C. Packard, Geoghan's trial lawyer, who now serves as a district court judge in Malden.
"One time I believe an inmate in general population, while passing in the hallway, might have bumped him," Packard said. "But certainly in the protective cellblock where he lived, my impression was that it was the ultimate live-and-let-live cellblock."
Packard said when Geoghan was asked by prison officials in the fall of 2002 if he had any enemies in prison, his answer was telling.
"Not among the inmates," Geoghan replied.
But Geoghan's notorious conduct as a priest was, of course, widely known, and he was hardly well liked in the unit.
On the days he chose to join other protective custody inmates in Concord's "chow hall," Geoghan would run a verbal gauntlet, in which general-population prisoners, from their locked cells, would shout insults and elaborate obscenities at him. The prisoners called it "Thunder Alley." And Geoghan did not escape its ferocity.
"Die in hell!"
"Geoghan, you pedophile!"
And, perhaps most frequently, "Skinner!" -- prison slang for someone who has sexually assaulted children. To Geoghan, those epithets were just unpleasant names hurled from a relatively safe distance. To avoid them, he often skipped meals, sustaining himself with food staples purchased from the prison canteen, lawyers said.
The more serious threat, the former priest frequently complained, came from a small group of Correction officers sworn to take care of him. One in particular, Correction Officer Cosmo A. Bisazza, seemed to Geoghan to be bent on tormenting him, the inmate told his legal advisers.
Bisazza, a 50-year-old Marlborough resident who moonlights as a martial arts instructor, is described by top leaders of his union as a seasoned, by-the-book officer who cuts no corners.
They dismissed accusations that Bisazza put excrement in Geoghan's cell and mercilessly haunted him. They said most of those allegations, which arose within days of Geoghan's death, are the baseless charges of anonymous inmates who, by definition, are liars, cheats, and felons. Bisazza himself, in an official disciplinary report, said Geoghan should be punished for making false claims of mistreatment.
"The thought of a Correction officer defecating or urinating on a bed is just ridiculous," said Joseph Guarino, the legislative representative for the Correction officers' union. "That's something an inmate would do."
Ahearn, the union treasurer, compared Bisazza to a well-known father figure from TV's benign black-and-white era.
"The guy's like Ward Cleaver," Ahearn said of the Concord guard.
Bisazza did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His lawyer, Francis J. DiMento Jr., declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigation into Geoghan's death.
But Geoghan's lawyers, accounts collected by lawyers for other inmates, and Geoghan's disciplinary record at Concord suggest that Bisazza's treatment of Geoghan was tough.
"He's sadistic, and he's a bully," Pingeon said of Bisazza. "He picks on vulnerable prisoners."
Geoghan would later tell a lawyer that from his earliest days in Concord, Bisazza took glee in posting the headlines about the convicted former priest's notorious conduct near his duty station.
"What do you think of that, Lucifer?" Geoghan said Bisazza asked him, employing a synonym for the devil.
"I will be retiring in two to three years, and I am going to make your life miserable," Geoghan said Bisazza told him, according to another legal adviser.
One of Geoghan's closest associates on the unit in Concord was Lewis S. Lent Jr., who is serving a life sentence for the 1990 murder of 12-year-old Jimmy Bernardo of Pittsfield. Lent also admitted killing 12-year-old Sara Anne Wood in New York in 1993. Her body has never been found.
Lent told a Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services lawyer that Bisazza turned on Geoghan early because of the defrocked priest's jailhouse friendship with a child killer.
"His association with me, plus Geoghan's crime, made him a target," Lent told the attorney.
Between April 2, 2002, and Oct 2, 2002, Geoghan received at least 11 disciplinary reports for violating the code of prison conduct at Concord. Bisazza wrote four of those complaints.
The details of Bisazza's alleged treatment of Geoghan are noteworthy not only because they provide intense glimpses of life behind bars. They became an important part of his formal prison record.
And when Geoghan was transferred last spring to the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center, the Department of Correction would cite Geoghan's poor-conduct record in Concord as a reason for sending a man convicted of a single count of molestation to a maximum-security prison, where some of the most violent prisoners in Massachusetts awaited him.
"I'm certain that all these charges were trumped up," said Charles D. Houlihan Jr., Geoghan's cousin. "That's just not in John's nature. He tends to be a very stable character."
Houlihan, an attorney from Simsbury, Conn., added of Geoghan: "He was generally cheerful, calm, polite. A real gentle soul. So I can't think that those charges had any basis at all."
'Gratuitous and puerile cruelty'
Six weeks after Geoghan was sentenced to prison, he received his first disciplinary report from Bisazza.
The officer said he confronted Geoghan on April 2, "regarding a statement that [Geoghan] reported to an officer that I had placed feces inside his cell."
Geoghan would later tell fellow inmates that he was, indeed, convinced that Bisazza was behind the incident. When confronted directly by Bisazza, however, Geoghan demurred, according to the report. Geoghan insisted that he had been falsely accused of pointing the finger at Bisazza, according to the report.
Bisazza, formally identifying Geoghan by his offender identification number -- W70597 -- said he did not accept Geoghan's story. "I informed inmate Geoghan that he would receive a D-report for lying," Bisazza wrote.
Geoghan did not appeal, but he complained to his lawyer and, within days, Packard fired off a letter to William Coalter, who was then Concord's superintendent. Packard complained that Geoghan had been verbally abused and at least once physically assaulted. Packard attributed the misconduct to "a few corrections officers."
"I would think that it goes without saying that, notwithstanding the allegations against him and the feelings that they might engender, my client has a right simply to be left alone and not subjected to gratuitous and puerile cruelty," Packard wrote.
"If there are officers who are unable to master their emotions sufficiently to discharge their duties professionally, perhaps they should be transferred to less taxing assignments. I remain hopeful that these isolated instances can be eliminated entirely."
It's not clear what steps, if any, Coalter took after receiving the complaint from Geoghan's lawyer. But Geoghan was not cited for misconduct again for more than two months.
In mid-June, Geoghan got two disciplinary reports within two hours. Bisazza cited him for having a medication in his cell that was beyond its expiration date for legal use. The officer confiscated the medication and placed it in a drawer. Geoghan got a second citation later that morning for imploring another officer to retrieve the medication while Bisazza was busy escorting prisoners to lunch.
"Inmate Geoghan attempted to convince me that the medication wasn't expired, and that [Bisazza] was against him," the second officer wrote.
In fact, Geoghan would later receive a memo from Lorene Melvin, the prison's health services administrator, noting "that it was the nurses fault that your stop date on [the medication] had run over." The memo told Geoghan he had the right to appeal his one-week loss of canteen privileges.
On Aug. 2, Geoghan's disciplinary record worsened. Again he was written up twice in two hours.
Bisazza said he heard Geoghan complain about him to a prison sergeant. "This man has prevented me from getting my mail and haircuts," Geoghan said, according to Bisazza's report. He wrote Geoghan up for lying and insolence and for using a threatening gesture. Bisazza said Geoghan "pointed his finger at my face and shouted."
Two hours later, Correction Officer Charles Haley accused Geoghan of calling him a "fool" in front of other inmates. "When asked why he called me a fool, he pointed his finger at me and stated, `Watch it, watch it,' in a threatening manner," Haley wrote in his report on the incident.
Packard represented Geoghan at a disciplinary hearing on the charges, but his 15-day room restriction and reprimand were upheld. "Verbal statements made by inmates to disrespect officers/staff will not be tolerated here at MCI-Concord," the hearing officer concluded.
Geoghan received another citation on Aug. 15 for allegedly calling another correction officer an obscenity and a "clown" during an exchange in the prison's visiting room. The officer said Geoghan later denied it, telling the officer: "You're a disgrace. You're a disgrace as an officer."
In his own defense, Geoghan would later write on a prison form about his alleged use of the epithet: "I've never used the word . . . in my life."
But it didn't work. He lost his phone, canteen, and visitation privileges for six weeks.
"This inmate seems to have a disturbing habit of saying things to officers he doesn't remember, causing the officer to consistently reprimand him," a hearing officer concluded.
Packard had had enough.
He wrote another scornful letter to Coalter, the prison superintendent at the time, complaining about Geoghan's treatment, "although I suspect that it is a waste of my time."
Bisazza and Haley were routinely addressing Geoghan as "Satan," or "Lucifer," Packard reported.
"They have repeatedly suggested that he engages in sexual intercourse with his sister (a frail spinster in her late sixties); they have ransacked his cell in futile searches for contraband and have damaged or destroyed personal items, some of a religious nature," Packard wrote in the Aug. 16 letter.
"It is nearly impossible to read the officers' accounts without inferring that they are part of a vendetta."
Haley did not respond to requests for comment.
Packard said Geoghan had made his complaints either directly to Coalter and to his lieutenants, or through his sister and lawyer. "As far as any of us can determine, they have been either ignored or dismissed," Packard wrote.
Coalter, in a return letter, assured Packard that Geoghan's alleged mistreatment would be investigated and "will not be ignored." If Coalter interceded on Geoghan's behalf, legal advocates never learned of it.
One of the most serious offenses lodged against Geoghan at Concord -- and the one he argued most vociferously against -- occurred in the prison's visiting room in full view of his sister on Sept. 5.
According to Geoghan's written account, Haley escorted him to the visiting center early that afternoon, where Catherine Geoghan waited to see her brother.
"At door of the visiting building, [Haley] said, `Don't stir up trouble in the visiting room today,' " according to Geoghan's handwritten account of the incident.
By Geoghan's account, which was incorporated into his disciplinary record, he had just checked in for his visit, leaving his prison identification card in a wall slot, when Correction Officer Jason Harris rushed toward him in full view of his sister. "He passed her and with eye contact with me, veered into my path and hit me with his right shoulder (a strong body check), which slammed my right shoulder and `spun me' around. (I'm almost 70 years old)," Geoghan wrote.
Geoghan said he was verbally harassed moments later by another officer during his visit with his sister. Then, Geoghan said, Harris "smirked and said some expletive."
Geoghan could not restrain himself.
"I said quietly, `You assaulted me. Period!' Then returned to my visitor who had heard and seen all," he said.
Attempts to reach Harris were not successful. He no longer works for the prison system.
The Department of Correction's official version of the Geoghan-Harris encounter is dramatically different from the former priest's.
An investigating officer insisted that it was Geoghan who bumped Harris. It was Geoghan who falsely accused Harris of assault. It was Geoghan who lied and concocted a story "with the sole intention of bringing false assault charges against the officer."
For this offense, Geoghan lost his access to the phone and to his canteen. And he surrendered his visitation rights -- the privilege that meant the most to him -- for six weeks.
"Phone calls and visits meant contact with his sister," said one lawyer familiar with Geoghan's treatment at Concord. "And you didn't need to be a genius to know that if anything was keeping this guy going, it was his ability to have contact with his sister. And they knew that the way to really get to this guy was to cut him off from his sister."
A public voice
In her only public statement about the death of her brother, Catherine Geoghan said the things she saw from the visiting room in Concord and the stories she heard from her brother made the horror stories of prison life all too real.
"To say that prison life is harsh fails to acknowledge the enormous difficulty of that experience," she said in a prepared statement in October. "John always conducted himself respectfully and as a gentleman and received fair treatment from many prisoners and guards. Other guards abused him terribly, and with seeming impunity."
Catherine Geoghan said the "body check" Geoghan absorbed in MCI-Concord's visiting room in September 2002 was not jailhouse fiction.
"A guard had assaulted John as he approached me in the visitor room," she said. "The prison official to whom I complained disputed my report, and then lied to me, fabricating the story that he saw John attack the guard when I know that he did not. By inventing a story to protect the guard, that official clearly communicated to me not only John's vulnerability to the whims of abusive guards, but the prison's ability to manipulate the disciplinary and grievance procedures to hide mistreatment. No honest person would believe that John was a discipline problem."
His sister was giving public voice to the helplessness Geoghan privately expressed during his final months at Concord.
Bisazza, he said, would not let up.
He wrote Karen DiNardo, Concord's director of classification, on Oct. 11 to complain that Bisazza had accused him of misconduct in prison that echoed the crime for which he was imprisoned.
"In the presence of Charles Haley and [a former Geoghan cellmate] and the other inmates, [he] accused me of touching [the cellmate] inappropriately," Geoghan wrote to DiNardo, according to correspondence viewed by the Globe.
Geoghan said that when he turned to confront his former cellmate about his accusation, "his response was to laugh and say, `I said it. Ya,' " Geoghan reported.
For Geoghan, who had insisted since his arrival that he was innocent of sexual misconduct -- set up, he said, by "dysfunctional" accusers -- this was too much.
"This is calumny, an outright lie and libel," Geoghan told DiNardo. "I've never touched [the former cellmate] or any inmate ever in an inappropriate way. I will immediately inform my attorney, Mr. Geoffrey Packard, [about] this new offense, and he will be in contact on this matter as well as others."
The outraged inmate signed his letter: "Respectfully, John J. Geoghan. W70597."
By early November, Geoghan was marveling at the relentless, and unquestioned, authority of his keepers.
"I am amazed at the audacity of the institution!" Geoghan wrote a legal adviser. "To this `novice,' it appears that some union has achieved `Godly powers' and some small tail is wagging the dog. I am most willing to wait and endure the privation [unjust]. Still no visits, phone, canteen until Dec. 5th.
"And Cosmo Bisazza, Chuck Haley, and [another Correction officer] are harassing me daily, hoping to start up new disciplinary reports. I forgot [Jason] Harris!!! They are `minions of Satan!' I never encountered anything like this before. My feeling is this: My sister is in poor health and no calls and visits are as stressful to her as to me."
For the first time, Geoghan considered pushing for a transfer that would deliver him from the Correction officers at Concord, perhaps to a jurisdiction outside of Department of Correction control.
And as Christmas approached, his thoughts remained with his sister, the only surviving member of his immediate family.
He was determined to do almost anything to make sure he did not lose touch with her.
Tomorrow: Geoghan, the man, the priest, and the convict.
Thomas Farragher can be reached at email@example.com