The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Former priest Geoghan is slain

Cleric at the center of sex abuse crisis strangled in prison

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 8/24/2003

John J. Geoghan, the defrocked priest whose crimes triggered a sweeping clergy-abuse scandal, was strangled in a high-security state prison yesterday by a convicted killer with a white supremacist past, authorities said.

Prosecutors plan to charge Joseph L. Druce, 37, with murder. Druce is already serving a life sentence for killing an elderly Gloucester man 15 years ago. The admitted neo-Nazi also pleaded guilty last year to an anthrax hoax after sending powder-filled envelopes containing threatening swastika-adorned notes to 39 Jewish lawyers around the country.

Geoghan's death, at the age of 68, was the stunning end to a devastating career in which Geoghan was accused of molesting nearly 150 children -- assaults that helped force the resignation last year of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who returned him to parish work despite knowing of the alleged abuse. Geoghan was in prison serving six years of a nine-to-10-year sentence for fondling a boy in a public swimming pool a decade ago, and he was still awaiting trial in another child abuse case. Last September, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay $10 million to settle legal cases brought by 86 alleged victims of Geoghan, and another two dozen civil suits are still pending.

The attack occurred in the protective custody wing of the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster, where prisoners are kept mostly isolated and apart, with prison guards constantly monitoring their movement. It was unclear last night how Druce obtained access to Geoghan.

Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte said in a statement that the Massachusetts State Police detective unit, assisted by the state corrections department, will investigate the slaying. A Worcester County grand jury will hear the case against Druce in September, he said. Druce last night was held in isolation at the same prison. Conte said a preliminary investigation indicated that Geoghan had been strangled and an autopsy was pending. He did not specify how Geoghan had been strangled.

Druce changed his name several years ago from Darrin Smiledge. His father, Dana Smiledge of Byfield, said his son has a longstanding grudge against homosexuals, in addition to a hatred of blacks and Jews.

''I can't understand why they would put a guy who would kill a sex offender in a cell with a sex offender,'' he said by phone last night, though it's unclear if the two were ever in a cell together.

Smiledge said he hasn't spoken with his son in eight years and wants nothing to do with him. Smiledge said Druce has threatened to kill his family and Smiledge's mother in the past.

''I did everything I could do for years to help him,'' he said. ''He deserves to stay [in prison].''

Druce was convicted of the 1988 murder of 51-year-old George Rollo of Gloucester, whose body was found in a wooded area of Route 128 near Beverly.

Yesterday afternoon, Geoghan's sister, Catherine T. Geoghan, came to the door of her West Roxbury home yesterday but declined to comment on her brother's death. A woman who answered the phone at the house also said the former priest's sister, who had stood by him throughout his trials, had no comment. Geoghan's attorney, Geoffrey Packard, did not return a telephone message left at his home.

But Geoghan's victims, his former colleagues, and church officials were stunned by the death.

''This case was tragic to the very end,'' said Monsignor Peter V. Conley, pastor of St. Jude Church in Norfolk. ''For all his troubled life, and for all the troubles he brought to others, he didn't deserve this violent end. That's awful.''

The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and president of the Boston Priests Forum, agreed.

''This is just another dimension to the continued tragedy,'' he said. ''With all the enormity of his crimes, and the grave, grave harm he has caused to his victims, this also is a crime that has happened to him. No one should ever find any kind of vindication in this.''

Bullock and numerous others interviewed yesterday questioned why Geoghan was not better protected by state officials.

Geoghan was being held in his own cell in the protective custody unit, said Kelly Nantel, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction, and only 24 of the 64 units were occupied yesterday, she said.

''We take every life seriously,'' she said. ''He was in our protective custody unit to keep him safe from other inmates. The protective custody units are designed for inmates who could become victims in the facility.''

Nantel said she did not know whether Geoghan's attacker was also in protective custody, and did not know if the attacker had any previous relationship with the former priest or cite any reason for the attack.

''It's odd that he wasn't better protected, given his notoriety. He's the most famous child molester in prison right now,'' said Stephen J. Pope, an associate professor of theology at Boston College. ''Geoghan's crimes were facilitated by the negligence of the church, but his death was facilitated by the negligence of the state.''

A state lawmaker who serves on a committee overseeing prisons said he wasn't sure whether the Legislature should look into Geoghan's death. ''Not to sound cold here, but growing up, you hear about jail-house justice and this might be a case of that,'' said state Representative Demetrius J. Atsalis, a Barnstable Democrat on the Joint Committee on Public Safety. ''Those who prey on children aren't seen in the same light as other convicts. Is it shocking? I don't think so. His crime was against children and convicts know that -- they don't like it.''

The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center is the state's newest prison and is on the campus of the Shirley Correctional Complex. Geoghan had been held there since April 1, when he was transferred from a prison in Concord. He was attacked about noontime, treated by medical staff at the prison, and pronounced dead two hours later at HealthAlliance Hospital Leominster Campus, Nantel said.

When news of Geoghan's slaying reached his victims yesterday, it provoked little sympathy. ''Good,'' said Frank Leary, who was assaulted by Geoghan in the early 1970s at the rectory of St. Andrew's Church in Jamaica Plain. ''What do you expect? He's where he was supposed to be and this is probably what's supposed to happen to him.''

Patrick McSorley, another Geoghan victim, said: ''I'm not surprised. I'm just very confused right now about the whole thing. It isn't right to murder. I would have liked it for him to serve his time and face those other charges and do a lot longer than he was getting. He's ruined a lot of people's lives.''

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who since 1994 has represented 147 people who say they were abused by Geoghan, was also shocked. ''I'm surprised, I'm shocked, and I've spoken to a number of my clients and they're surprised and shocked,'' he said. ''My clients would much rather have seen Father Geoghan complete his sentence, face additional criminal charges and additional trials, and therefore have the public further informed about clergy sexual abuse. This is just a sad situation.''

Joseph E. Gallagher Jr., a parishioner at St. Julia Church in Weston for 24 years whose six children were all taught by Geoghan, said he was saddened.

''This is not a day for anybody to be happy about a man being murdered in prison,'' Gallagher said from his Wellesley home. ''It's a very sad day.''

Gallagher had hoped Geoghan would spend the rest of life facing his victims and serving time.

''He was accused, tried, convicted, and serving time in prison,'' he said. '' He was going to face two or three more trials and he probably was never going to see the light of day again.''

Church officials were stunned.

''The Archdiocese of Boston offers prayers for the repose of John's soul and extends its prayers and consolation to his beloved sister, Cathy, at this time of personal loss,'' the church said in a statement offered by spokesman the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne.

Raja Mishra, Stephen Smith and Megan Tench of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jared Stearns contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at Thomas Farragher can be reached at

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