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Spotlight Report

Many clergy opt not to discuss Geoghan

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/14/02

ith a trial of a defrocked priest accused of child molestation set to start today, Cardinal Bernard F. Law yesterday stood before a crowd of worshipers packed with future priests, apologized for clergy sexual abuse, and asked God to help clergy ''live out our baptismal call to holiness.''

But at parishes in Dorchester and Weston where the Rev. John J. Geoghan is alleged to have molested young boys, priests chose not to talk about the issue, to the chagrin of some parishioners.

Although Law said last week that ''sexual abuse is a matter of open and public discussion,'' the archdiocese has sent mixed signals about its willingness to fully engage in that discussion. Many priests and archdiocesan officials were unwilling or unavailable to talk about the issue last week or to speak about it in church yesterday.

Law, celebrating Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End, told worshipers who braved a snowy morning that he wanted to make a statement about clergy sexual abuse, ''as I'm sure you would expect me to.'' Law last week issued a broad apology to victims of clergy sexual abuse and called his own decision to reassign Geoghan knowing that he was a pedophile ''tragically incorrect.'' Law said he made the decision in good faith at the time based on advice from doctors who had cleared Geoghan for parish work.

''To victims and their families, I reiterate again my profound apology, and I also reiterate the hope that the church's evolving response to that problem - a response based on the best advice present - might offer some measure of comfort,'' Law said yesterday. ''No priest known to the archdiocese as having been responsible for the sexual abuse of a minor may hold any position within the archdiocese. We have a policy of zero tolerance.''

Law said all church workers, including clergy, are now required to report any form of child abuse, including sexual abuse, to state authorities. He urged worshipers to pray for victims, perpetrators, priests, and for the cardinal himself, ''that the Lord may help me in my resolve to deal ever more effectively with this issue.''

Geoghan is charged in two criminal cases, one of which goes to trial today, of molesting a total of three young boys, but he is accused in pending and settled civil suits of molesting more than 130 youngsters over three decades before he was defrocked in 1998.

At Saint Brendan's Church in Dorchester, where Geoghan was assigned from 1981 to 1984, the Rev. James F. Fratus did not discuss Geoghan, but said he would speak about the case next weekend.

Afterward, Michael O'Dwyer, a St. Brendan's parishioner for seven years, said congregants, troubled by revelations about Geoghan's history of alleged abuse, need Fratus to make more than a few remarks.

''This man [Geoghan] has violated hundreds of lives,'' said O'Dwyer, a 38-year-old father of four.

O'Dwyer said he believes the Catholic Church should be more aggressive in removing priests who molest children, but he said he was pleased Law apologized last week for transferring Geoghan to other parishes after learning he was accused of molesting boys.

''It takes a big man to admit he's wrong,'' O'Dwyer said.

In Weston, at Saint Julia's Church, where Geoghan worked from 1984 to 1993, the Rev. Robert D. Tyrrell also chose not to speak about Geoghan yesterday. The statement Law issued last week was distributed to parishioners, and worshipers were asked to pray that the parish's ''wounds may heal.''

That wasn't enough for some worshipers.

''I was a little surprised he didn't mention it,'' said Malcolm Hayes, 52, who said he has attended Sunday Mass at St. Julia's for 30 years.

Hayes said he thought his pastor had ''tried to avoid ... at all costs'' addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse when it first became clear that Geoghan was accused of wrongdoing.

He said that his wife has had trouble returning to church since the revelations - the couple has two sons who were close to Geoghan but were not molested - and that ''it's taken too long'' for the church to speak publicly about the issue.

''It has hurt the faith of a lot of people,'' Hayes said.

Yesterday's Mass at Cathedral of the Holy Cross featured a long-scheduled celebration of men training to become priests and deacons, as well as men and women who are now serving in religious orders as monks and nuns. Because of the sexual abuse allegations, the Mass included not only the usual prayers for an increase in vocations, but also a prayer Law added ''for all those who have suffered abuse sexually as minors at the hands of those consecrated to serve.''

Worshipers seemed inclined to accept Law's apology.

''It's good, although it should have been done a while ago,'' said Kate Hartke, 24, of Boston. ''I'll keep going to church, and I like Cardinal Law's Masses. But I think it's good that he addressed this today.''

Bridget Mickley, 32, of Boston, also welcomed Law's remarks.

''I still have extreme faith,'' she said. ''This is very sad. It's a very horrible series of events, but I don't think it's just a Catholic problem. It's a flaw in society in general.''

Seminarians attending the Mass said their desire to become priests remains strong, despite the suspicion with which their vocation is sometimes now viewed.

''It strengthens my resolve,'' said Joseph D'Onofrio, 36, a first-year theology student at St. John's Seminary in Brighton.

''The church is doing the best she can right now,'' D'Onofrio said.

Brian Rose, 41, also a first-year theology student at St. John's, said ''nothing will thwart a genuine call.''

Rose said the cases of clergy sexual abuse ''cause us sadness,'' but ''God needs more foot soldiers to go out there and fight for the glory of God.''

Globe correspondents Benjamin Gedan and Michele Kurtz contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

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