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Spotlight Report

A 'grieving' Law apologizes for assignment of Geoghan

Orders priests, others to report pedophiles

By Walter V. Robinson and Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/10/2002

Cardinal Bernard F. Law discussing the case of John Geoghan with reporters. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Cardinal Law's statement

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C ardinal Bernard F. Law said yesterday that he is ''profoundly sorry'' he sent an alleged pedophile priest, John J. Geoghan, to a new assignment in 1984, a decision he said was, ''in retrospect, tragically incorrect.''

In an extraordinary public expression of remorse, Law apologized to all victims of sex abuse by priests, to Geoghan's alleged victims, ''and particularly those who were abused in assignments which I made ...''

His apology, he said, ''comes from a grieving heart.''

In a nearly hour-long session with reporters, Law acknowledged that disclosures about the abuse, and especially Geoghan's alleged serial molestation, have hurt the church's reputation - and his own. And he said they have cast a cloud of suspicion over more than 900 diocesan priests ''who serve the mission of the church with integrity.''

But several times the cardinal acknowledged the plight of the victims of Geoghan and other priests.

''With all my heart I wish to apologize once again for the harm done to the victims of sexual abuse by priests. I do so in my own name, but also in the name of my brother priests. These days are particularly painful for the victims of John Geoghan. My apology to them and their families, and particularly to those who were abused in assignments which I made, comes from a grieving heart. I am indeed profoundly sorry,'' the 70-year-old cardinal said.

He added: ''I can only hope that victims and their families can take some heart from the fact that not only the Church but society as a whole are responding more effectively to this overwhelming tragedy.''

Law said he has ordered priests and other archdiocesan employees to report any future allegations of sexual molestation to law enforcement authorities - even though clergy members are not required by state law to do so. And Law reiterated his commitment to the victims of sex abuse, which will include a comprehensive child protection program, Keeping Children Safe, that is being developed.

''For the Archdiocese of Boston, I pledge a policy of zero tolerance for such behavior. Any priest known to have sexually abused a minor simply will not function as a priest in any way in this Archdiocese,'' Law said in a lengthy statement.

Responding to a reporter's question, the cardinal said that, to his knowledge, there is no priest now active in the archdiocese ''who is guilty of sexually abusing a minor.''

Law's news conference was prompted by a Globe Spotlight series Sunday and Monday, which reported that Geoghan was assigned to parishes throughout the 1980s - and often oversaw youth groups, including altar boys - even though Law and other ranking church officials were aware that he had abused children in at least three parishes.

One of those assignments, to St. Julia's Church in Weston in 1984, prompted a letter of protest from Auxiliary Bishop John M. D'Arcy, the Globe reported, in which he warned - prophetically - that Geoghan might create further scandal.

Law, who became the archbishop of Boston in 1984, removed Geoghan from parish duty in 1993, and he was summarily removed from the priesthood in 1998. The former priest faces two criminal trials, the first scheduled to start Monday. And there are nearly 90 pending civil lawsuits filed by his accusers. Charged with negligence in almost all the lawsuits are the archdiocese, many church officials who supervised him, and five bishops.

The cardinal is a defendant in 25 of those lawsuits. Yesterday, he said he acted in ''good faith,'' reiterating that Geoghan was medically and psychiatrically cleared before each assignment.

Already, the archdiocese has settled claims from 50 other alleged Geoghan victims, at a cost of more than $10 million.

What was very likely Law's most painful public moment was televised in its entirety by New England Cable News. And WBZ-TV (Channel 4) provided live coverage of much of the news conference, during which the cardinal, without complaint or visible irritation, took questions that sometimes challenged his judgment in placing Geoghan in proximity to children.

Law, for instance, reminded reporters that the 1984 assignment - and the 1989 decision to allow Geoghan to remain at the church after new allegations of abuse - were made only after expert conclusions that the assignments were appropriate.

But asked whether he should have stopped the reassignment anyway, given the record of abuse and Geoghan's 1980 statement that his molestation of seven boys in one Jamaica Plain family was not ''serious,'' Law replied: ''I didn't have the knowledge, the experience with this issue, the wisdom of time, that I have now. Should I have had? You're free to make that judgment if you wish. But in fact I didn't.''

In his lengthy opening statement, the cardinal, alluding to the policy he put in place in 1993, said he wished the church had such a policy 50 years ago, ''or when I came here as archbishop.

''Cases were handled then in a manner that would not be acceptable according to our present policy,'' he said. ''I know of nothing that has caused me greater pain than the recognition of that fact.''

The cardinal said he understands how some might criticize his earlier decisions. But he said: ''Before God, however, it was not then, nor is it my intent now, to protect a priest accused of misconduct against minors at the expense of those whom he is ordained to serve.''

As resolute and sorrowful as Law was yesterday, his remarks are unlikely to quell the controversy: Late this month, thousands of pages of records in the Geoghan civil lawsuits are due to be made public. That is because Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, ruling on a motion by the Globe, lifted a confidentiality order from 2000 that sealed all discovery in the case.

The documents will include secret church records about Geoghan, as well as transcripts of depositions that will shed more light on what Geoghan's superiors knew about his conduct.

Asked whether he would bring a halt to archdiocese efforts to win court orders barring the public from access to documents in priest abuse cases, Law said, ''I need to discuss the implications of that question further.''

On some other points, the cardinal, as defendant, trod carefully, perhaps heeding advice from his lawyer, Wilson Rogers Jr. For example, Law was careful to say that, ''in retrospect,'' the decision to keep Geoghan in parishes was wrong. For him to admit that he should have known those decisions were wrong when he made them would open the archdiocese to much larger financial liability.

Even his voluntary decision to require church officials to report future allegations of sex abuse to police was a late step for the archdiocese: For several years, it has successfully fought legislation to require priests to join other ''mandated reporters'' in reporting accusations of abuse.

Last summer, after Law's initial admission that he transferred Geoghan to Weston in 1984 after learning of allegations he had abused seven Jamaica Plain children, the archdiocese said it would support the legislation. But it died in committee.

Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who represents virtually all the plaintiffs against Geoghan - 118 alleged victims, including settled cases - said he thought the cardinal's apology was ''conditional.''

''Since 1994, I've represented 118 victims of sexual molestation by Father John J. Geoghan,'' Garabedian said. ''At some point in time before today, the cardinal must have understood that Father Geoghan had problems, sexually, with children.

''My clients find it difficult to believe that he would rely on doctors and not err on the side of caution and therefore not place Father Geoghan in the presence of children, given Father Geoghan's track record,'' the lawyer added.

The threat to Catholic children has dropped sharply, Law suggested, since the archdiocese began a review of its personnel files in 1993, reopening any case where there had been past allegations.

In March 2000, at a prayer service in Holy Cross Cathedral, Law included ''sorrow for the acts of sexual misconduct'' by clergy in 12 prayers of intercession seeking forgiveness for the archdiocese's ''sins and shortcomings.''

Last November, in an interview with the Globe, he reflected on the harm caused to Catholic youngers and their families by clergy sexual miscondict, saying he was pained and anguished by it and that he always tried to prevent such abuse.

Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes and Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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