Slow start for Geoghan trial
Many potential jurors dismissed
By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 1/13/2002
AMBRIDGE - Five days after Cardinal Bernard F. Law publicly apologized for sending former priest John J. Geoghan to a new parish in 1984, Geoghan is standing trial on a criminal charge that he molested a boy in that final assignment.
The trial crept toward opening statements yesterday as Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra L. Hamlin tried to winnow out potential jurors who might be partial to either Geoghan or prosecutors.
By day's end, 14 potential jurors (eight women and six men) had been chosen; 53 were rejected. Hamlin has said she will select 32 potential jurors, then prosecutors and Geoghan's lawyer can each reject as many as eight of those jurors.
In the first day of jury selection, Hamlin probed whether a Catholic man could fairly judge a former Catholic priest; whether a mother of young children could be un biased toward an accused child molester; whether a sexual assault victim could impartially judge a man charged with sexual assault.
Many potential jurors had read or seen news reports about the Geoghan case. Some had strong opinions.
"This is just shattering my faith in the priesthood," one man said.
"Thank your for your honesty," Hamlin said, and excused him.
Choosing jurors may well take longer than the trial, which is expected to last two days. Although Geoghan has been accused of molesting more than 130 children, the case beginning this week will revolve around a single charge: that Geoghan improperly touched the buttocks of a 10-year-old boy in the swimming pool of the Waltham Boys and Girls Club during the fall of 1991.
Geoghan, then a priest at St. Julia's parish in Weston, is charged with one count of indecent assault and battery on a child. He pleaded not guilty and has been free on personal recognizance. Geoghan also faces charges that he sexually assaulted two children in Suffolk County. That trial will begin next month.
Last week, Law said he was "profoundly sorry" for sending Geoghan to the Weston parish. Law issued a broad apology to victims of sexual abuse by clergy and said he was adopting a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual abuse by priests.
Geoghan's lawyer, Geoffrey Packard, had asked that the trial be delayed to avoid choosing jurors in the days after Law's unexpected and widely publicized apology. Packard also cited recent media coverage, including a series by the Globe's Spotlight Team that reported that Law and other archdiocesan officials were told that Geoghan was a pedophile even as they transferred him from parish to parish.
Hamlin declined to delay the trial, saying she would reconsider as she interviewed potential jurors. Packard had previously asked to move the trial to another county, arguing that publicity had tainted the jury pool. Another Middlesex judge had rejected that motion.
Geoghan seemed cheerful yesterday, smiling as he walked into court. He chatted and often laughed with his sister Catherine and a friend, the Rev. Joseph Casey, during court breaks.
Yesterday morning, Hamlin asked 100 potential jurors general questions to purge the pool of those with obvious impediments, including those who know anyone who might be called as a witness, those who take medication that might impair their ability to deliberate, and those who were related to people who work in law enforcement.
Hamlin excused 34 jurors who came forward. She then called each remaining potential juror into the courtroom, one by one, and asked about a dozen questions designed to ferret out bias.
She asked whether they or anyone close to them had been sexually assaulted as children or accused of sexually assaulting anyone. She questioned whether their religious convictions would prevent them from reaching a verdict. She asked whether they would be more or less likely to believe an alleged child victim than an adult.
Perhaps the question that elicited the most response, though, was her first: whether they had heard or seen news reports about Geoghan. Many of the potential jurors said they had heard about Geoghan or about Law's apology.
Most of those jurors still said they thought they could be impartial as they considered the case.
Several potential jurors were excused after they said they had been childhood victims of sexual assault. One man said he got panic attacks and would need to take medicine to get through deliberations. One woman said she had three young children and didn't think she could be impartial.
Hamlin also ordered that the identity of the alleged victim, who will testify, not be disclosed. She requested that reporters not identify his mother.
But after Assistant District Attorney Lynn Rooney asked the judge to extend her order to protect the mother's identity as well, Hamlin agreed to issue a temporary order while she considered Rooney's request.
Kathleen Burge can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page B4 of the Boston Globe on 1/15/2002.