The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Spotlight Report   FOLLOW-UP

Geoghan shifted real estate to trust

Indigent ex-priest gets state defender

By Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 1/14/02

hen former priest John J. Geoghan appears in a Cambridge courtroom this morning for the first of two criminal trials on charges that he raped and sexually molested children, he will be represented by a public defender paid for by taxpayer dollars.

That is because Geoghan, who was expelled from the priesthood in 1998, was declared indigent by the state two years ago after he reported income too low to afford a private lawyer.

And in the nearly 90 pending civil suits brought by Geoghan's alleged victims, lawyers consider him ''judgment proof,'' so penniless that they believe their only hope to collect money is from the Archdiocese of Boston and Geoghan's church superiors.

But just before Geoghan faced the first in a deluge of civil suits seven years ago, he sold his half-share in two houses he owned with his sister to a real estate trust she controls for $1 each, the Globe Spotlight Team has found. The trust was created the very same day.

The two houses, one an oceanfront home in Scituate and the other a large brick and stucco Colonial in West Roxbury, are together worth from $895,000 to $1.3 million, as measured by sales of comparable houses in each community.

Several legal specialists questioned the legality of the real estate transfers, saying they could be found fraudulent and ordered reversed if Geoghan's intent was to avoid paying liabilities resulting from prospective civil judgments or criminal fines.

''If [Geoghan] transferred the assets to avoid personal liability, then it's a fraudulent conveyance,'' said Boston lawyer Richard Glovsky, a former assistant US attorney now in private practice.

If a court finds the real estate transfers fraudulent and orders the properties conveyed back to him, he could be forced to sell both to pay judgments pending against him, Glovsky said.

Geoghan, who has rebuffed several recent attempts by the Globe to interview him, did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment from him and his sister on the property transfers.

The former priest, who is 66, and his sister, Catherine T. Geoghan, who will turn 68 next Sunday, appear to split their time between the homes, which have been in their family for nearly a half-century.

The February 1995 property transfers were made just months after prosecutors had begun a criminal investigation into allegations that Geoghan had molested children. The next year, the first of more than 100 civil suits was filed against Geoghan, accusing him of raping and fondling more than 130 children over three decades in a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.

To date, the Archdiocese of Boston has spent more than $10 million to settle about 50 civil claims against him. Geoghan, who is not offering a defense in the nearly 90 civil suits still pending, has not contributed to any of the settlements.

On Jan. 6, the Globe reported that Cardinal Bernard F. Law transferred Geoghan to a parish in Weston in 1984, and he allowed him to remain there in 1989 even though he knew that Geoghan had a long history of sexually molesting children before and after the 1984 assignment. Last Wednesday, Law expressed remorse for those decisions, saying that, in hindsight, they were ''tragically incorrect.''

Even if Geoghan had not removed his name from ownership records of the properties, it is unlikely state officials would have discovered he was part-owner of two valuable homes.

Because the state office that oversees indigency applications does not ask defendants about assets if their income meets federal poverty requirements - as Geoghan, under penalty of perjury, reported his does - it would have no way of knowing his total financial worth, including any property, vehicles, or investment accounts in his name.

Despite the state's finding that he lacks sufficient funds to defend himself at trial, real estate records make clear that Geoghan's lifestyle is far from Spartan.

The Scituate house, a seven-room home at 64 Oceanside Drive with sweeping views of the Atlantic, is assessed at $268,500. Comparable homes on the same street have sold recently for $460,000 to $625,000, according to real estate records.

The West Roxbury house, an attractive, well-maintained Colonial at 37 Pelton St., is assessed at $350,100. In that neighborhood, comparable homes have sold recently for $435,000 to $690,000, real estate records show.

The houses were previously owned by the Geoghans' mother, Katherine A. Geoghan, and uncle, Monsignor Mark H. Keohane, an influential figure in his nephew John's life. Keohane was pastor of St. Bartholomew's parish in Needham from 1952, the year he founded the church, until he retired in 1969. Keohane died in 1998, four years after his sister.

Keohane and Katherine Geoghan, who were siblings, bought the West Roxbury house in 1952 and the Scituate house a year later. John and Catherine Geoghan became part-owners of both homes in 1969 after their mother and uncle added their names to the deeds for less than $100. In 1983, Father Geoghan and his sister bought the houses from their mother and uncle for less than $100.

On Feb. 21, 1995 - with the prospect of litigation looming and two months after psychiatrists found he had a ''longstanding and continuing problem with sexual attraction to prepubescent males'' - Geoghan sold his share of the houses for $1 each to Kage Real Estate Trust, which had been established the same day with his sister as sole trustee, according to records examined by the Globe in the Suffolk County and Plymouth County registries of deeds.

If a defendant applying for indigent status has an income that meets certain federal poverty requirements, the defendant is not required to list any assets he may have, a loophole that would have allowed Geoghan to avoid disclosing his interest in the properties even if he had not made the real estate transfers.

Said Glovsky, ''It seems a little crazy to me to have a form that says that if your income is below a certain level you qualify for a public defender without any inquiry into what your assets are.''

Coria A. Holland, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Commissioner of Probation, which administers the indigency application process, said rules established by the state Supreme Judicial Court proscribe her office from asking about assets if the defendant's income meets poverty guidelines. ''Are people misrepresenting their assets and getting free counsel? No system is foolproof,'' Holland said. Holland said she could not recall a case where anyone was prosecuted for trying to hide assets.

The large number of applicants by itself would make anything more than a random check daunting. William J. Leahy, the chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents indigent defendants, said about 170,000 criminal defendants a year are deemed eligible for legal assistance. He said all are required to pay a $100 fee, although some have enough income or assets that they are required to pay a portion of their legal expenses.

Geoffrey Packard, Geoghan's public defender, said in an interview last week that he was unable to estimate how much the state has spent so far to defend Geoghan.

But if Geoghan had to pay the cost of his defense, Glovsky said, ''it wouldn't shock me if it was in the hundreds of thousands'' of dollars.

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