The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Predator priest seen as obvious prison target

Now, charges won't be heard

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 8/25/2003

Even in protective custody, the predator priest who spent decades sexually molesting trusting young children was an obvious target for violence. In prisons throughout the United States, corrections specialists say, inmates observe an unforgiving hierarchy that relegates child molesters such as former Catholic priest John J. Geoghan to the dregs of prison society -- and rewards those who attack them.

"There is a pecking order, and child molesters are at the very bottom," said John Daignault, a forensic psychologist at Harvard Medical School and a former state prison official. "They are often subjected to violent acts, and to sexual acts, as a recompense for what they were perceived to have done to others."

Some corrections specialists said the social structure in prisons is so pervasive -- and so familiar to prison officials -- that it came as no surprise to learn that Geoghan was allegedly strangled and beaten to death Saturday by fellow inmate Joseph L. Druce in the protective custody unit at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.

"Child molesters are in the lowest category of human being, as far as prisoners are concerned," said Edith Flynn, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "It was entirely predictable that this man would be targeted."

James Alan Fox, another Northeastern criminal justice professor, said Geoghan should have been seen as being at especially high risk because he was not only a convicted pedophile, but one who had molested boys and had received significant media attention. "There was a bull's eye on his uniform. He was clearly at risk," Fox said.

Those familiar with prison life say that the most violent inmates, even murderers, typically occupy the upper rungs of a prison's social caste, while criminals who have attacked children and the elderly, or who exhibit psychological disorders, struggle desperately to survive at the bottom.

"There is a tremendous fear of exposing any type of weakness. You present yourself as a person of strength and power willing to take any risk to not be humiliated," said Stuart Grassian, a Newton psychiatrist who has written about prison life. "In a prison setting there's often a rageful need to find people you can beat down and feel stronger than. People who commit pedophilia are seen as weak and disgusting and immoral. A person like Geoghan is inevitably going to be at the bottom of the hierarchy."

In addition, inmates such as Druce, an admitted neo-Nazi and convicted killer who is already serving a sentence of life without parole, may even enhance their prison reputations by violently attacking pedophiles or others at the lower end of inmate society. "Someone like this is going to increase his social status in his peer group." Grassian said.

Some of those who have studied prison populations, or worked with them, said it is not possible to say whether pedophiles are targeted for violent acts in prison because a disproportionately high percentage of the overall inmate population may have suffered child sexual abuse.

Daignault, the Harvard forensic psychologist, said most sexual abuse victims -- whether in or out of prison -- experience hate for their perpetrators but generally do not attack their abusers, unless the victims are also afflicted with other personality disorders. "The vast majority of those individuals who were sexually abused suffer internally with a whole host of feelings, one of which is hatred, but do not act on the hatred," Daignault said.

Robert Sherman, an attorney with the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, said that description applies to about a half dozen prison inmates he represents who claim they were sexually abused as minors by Catholic priests, but who have generally behaved well while incarcerated.

Still, Sherman said, a prison culture in which the strong prey on the weak has left several of his clients unwilling to reveal the abuse they suffered to other inmates. "They feel that the information coming out in a prison setting could subject them to an inordinate amount of harassment, scorn, and abuse," Sherman said. "It's a macho culture there."

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