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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

Priests' victims victimized twice

By 1/8/2002

WE COULDN'T tell you," a son finally said to his mother. "because Father said it was a confessional." In this "confessional," the boy and his three brothers were allegedly being raped by a priest, Father John J. Geoghan, whose sordid story was the subject of Globe Spotlight reports yesterday and Sunday. Geoghan, who was forced from the priesthood by the archdiocese of Boston in 1998, faces criminal trials, beginning next week, on numerous charges of child sexual abuse allegedly occuring during a period of more than 30 years.

The Globe story on Sunday was headlined, "Church allowed abuse by priest for years." It detailed the terrible church failure not only to deal effectively with Geoghan once his predatory behavior was exposed, but - even more grievous - the failure to protect children from him. On the contrary, church officials in Boston repeatedly moved him from one parish to another, bringing a succession of children into his care. And just as routinely, his many victims charge, Geoghan violated their trust and their bodies.

Child sexual abuse is not unique to the Catholic priesthood, but the peculiar shadow within which these abusers have been able to hide, preparing to strike again, has a tragic character that is particular to the Catholic Church - and the initial reference to the "confessional" offers the clue. Children who are abused by Catholic priests are typically victimized twice - once by the physical assault, and then by the imposition of a blasphemous cult of secrecy tied to the sacred powers of the priesthood and the needs of the church.

This secrecy protects the priest and condemns the victim to a kind of psychological solitary confinement. The physical abuse is horrible enough, universally rejected. But what happens when the cult of secrecy that protects the offending priest is understood by Catholics as somehow legitimate, a way of protecting, if not the priest, the institution of the priesthood? Garry Wills has called this the church's "conspiracy of silence."

In 1992, it was the case of James Porter, whose decades-long sexual spree as a priest of the Fall River Diocese victimized a legion of children, more than a hundred of whom eventually came forward to charge him. In this column that year I wrote, "James Porter hid in shadows thrown by the Catholic Church. Because of him, Catholicism will never be the same, nor should it be. What a bottomless depth of shame, sadness, and, especially, anger we Catholics feel about the heinous crimes against children of which the former priest from Fall River stands accused. Our rage at the church coverup must fuel a massive reform."

But did it? While the horrified attention of Boston was focused on Porter, Geoghan was still a priest, serving at St. Julia's Church in Weston, more than 20 years after first complaints of child sex abuse were brought against him. He had been assigned to St. Julia's in 1984 by Cardinal Bernard Law who, by his own admission in court documents, knew of charges that Geoghan was an abuser. While at St. Julia's, Geoghan allegedly abused at least 30 boys. In 1989, the archdiocese received more complaints about him, and he was sent into treatment, but only briefly. "The archdiocese returned him to St. Julia's," the Globe reports, "where Geoghan continued to abuse children for another three years." The priest kept bringing boys into his "confessional."

Has this blasphemous cult of secrecy ever really been ended? In dozens of civil law suits against Geoghan, whose interests are being protected when archdiocesan lawyers obtain court orders that seal church responses to Geoghan? It took a Globe lawsuit to change that, one the archdiocese fought tooth and nail. An appeals court recently found for the Globe: The veil of church secrecy will be lifted later this month.

This week, the Globe could get no comment about Geoghan from the cardinal or his spokesperson. The Globe "sought interviews with many of the priests and bishops who had supervised Geoghan or worked with him. None of the bishops would comment. Of the priests few would speak publicly. And one pastor hung up the phone and another slammed a door shut at the first mention of Geoghan's name." What is going on here? Is the outrage the crime against children? Or the long-overdue report of it in the press?

Last November, Pope John Paul II issued a stirring apology: "Sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims. It has been very damaging in the life of the church." The pope also called for "open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area." But what is happening in Boston? Who is the church protecting? Victims? Victimizers? Or a victimizing system that has yet to really change?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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