Geoghan case now in hands of judge
Question of statute of limitations is key
By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 2/23/2002
t's the most serious criminal case against former priest John Geoghan, the only one that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. But as a judge considers whether two child rape charges should be dismissed, the case could be doomed by lost files, fuzzy memories, and conflicting stories. The case hinges on whether Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margaret Hinkle decides the statute of limitations expired before a grand jury indicted Geoghan in 1999. Arguments on both sides, concluded yesterday, are rooted in tangled legal arguments and such a precise tally of days that prosecutors have submitted weather reports and calendars, noting that 1986, the year this alleged victim first reported abuse, was a leap year.
During a hearing that lasted a day and a half, prosecutors tried to recreate the legal underpinnings of charges first reported 16 years ago. Many case files are missing; police reports cannot be found and prosecutors looking for the original 1986 complaint found only an empty folder.
Prosecutors called on anyone they could who had any involvement with the case. One prosecutor has died; many of the witnesses have long since left their jobs, and some could remember only general details about the investigation. The alleged victim, now a 27-year-old father, testified that he first reported the alleged rapes in 1986, which would put the alleged crimes outside of the statute of limitations.
His mother testified that her son reported only being fondled by Geoghan in 1986 and did not mention the alleged rapes until three years later, which would put them within the statute of limitations.
The discrepancies prompted the judge, who said she probably will decide by March 8, to ask the prosecutor whom to believe. Suffolk Assistant District Attorney David Deakin suggested that the mother's memory was more accurate, and was supported by other testimony and evidence. The victim, he added, "has a difficulty sequencing events" because he was traumatized by abuse.
Sentenced Thursday to nine to 10 years in prison for fondling a boy in a public swimming pool a decade ago, Geoghan was escorted into court in state-issued clothes too large for his frame: baggy gray pants, rolled up several inches at the cuffs, and a big denim coat with a rumpled collar.
"To me, he looked a little worse for the wear, but his spirits are good," said his lawyer, Geoffrey Packard. Geoghan must serve six years of the sentence before he is released to lifetime probation.
After the hearing, reporters crowded around Geoghan's sister, Catherine. Asked her reaction to her brother's sentence, she hesitated and her lower lip quivered. "A lot of reaction, but I wouldn't say it," she answered in a barely audible voice.
Also yesterday, Packard filed a motion with a single justice of the Appeals Court, asking that Geoghan be allowed to live at home while he appeals his conviction. On Thursday, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin denied the request.
In the Suffolk criminal case, the victim says that Geoghan raped him when he was between 7 and 10 years old, in the early to mid-1980s. He said Geoghan sexually abused him at the priest's mother's house in West Roxbury, in the boy's own Roslindale bedroom, and in Geoghan's car. The boy sat on Geoghan's lap in the driver's seat, and steered the car while Geoghan fondled him, the boy said.
This week's hearing was prompted by a motion filed by Packard, asking Hinkle to dismiss the charges because the statute of limitations had expired. It is up to prosecutors to prove -- apparently, beyond a reasonable doubt, although that, too, was questioned yesterday -- that the statute of limitations had not expired before Geoghan was indicted.
Lawyers on both sides agreed that the clock began ticking when alleged abuse was first reported to law enforcement officials. Prosecutors say that although the boy reported in 1986 that Geoghan had fondled him, it wasn't until 1989 that he reported that Geoghan had also orally raped him.
The original allegation in 1986 did not result in prosecution because the mother didn't want her son to testify in court. But the case was reopened in 1989 after new allegations surfaced involving Geoghan and another child. Once again, the mother refused to allow her son to testify.
Because the current case charges Geoghan with rape, not fondling, prosecutors argue that the clock didn't start running until 1989, when the statute of limitations in such cases was 10 years. In May 1996, however, the law changed and the statute of limitations in child rape cases was extended to 15 years, meaning that prosecutors had until 2004 to indict Geoghan. He was indicted five years earlier in 1999.
But Packard argues that it was a single case, beginning in February 1986, that sprung from the boy's accusations about Geoghan. If Packard is correct, the statute of limitations expired in February 1996, three years before Geoghan was indicted, and three months before the statute was extended to 15 years.
Prosecutors say that even if Hinkle agrees with Packard that the clock started in 1986, the indictment is still valid. State law stops the clock while a defendant is "not usually and publicly a resident within the commonweath." Prosecutors argue that means that the clock stopped while Geoghan was receiving psychological treatment out of state for a total of 107 days in 1989 and 1995.
Packard called Deakin's interpretation of the law "nonsensical," saying that the law was intended to mean long-term moves such as incarceration. Would prosecutors' interpretation mean the statute of limitations would stop if a defendant went to New Hampshire for the weekend? he asked.
Packard and Deakin also disagree about when, exactly, the first 1986 report of abuse was filed. Packard argued it occurred in late February, when the state Department of Social Services substantiated the report of abuse. Deakin argues that it was later, either in early March when prosecutors opened the case, or later still, when the boy's mother went to police.
But the police reports are missing, and the boy's mother remembers only that the day was warm -- hence Deakin's meteorological reports, showing cold weather late in February 1986 and early March.
No one involved in the case has alleged that files were deliberately destroyed. They note the age of the case and the fact that both Boston Police and the Suffolk District Attorney's office have moved since the case was originally filed.
Kathleen Burge's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/23/2002.