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Patrick McSorley with his son, Patrick McSorley Jr., in October 2003. McSorley died of a drug overdose.
Patrick McSorley with his son, Patrick McSorley Jr., in October 2003. McSorley died of a drug overdose. (Courtesy McSorley Family)

McSorley's death recalls a life long lost

The late-night arrival had occurred many times. Patrick McSorley, perhaps the best-known victim of clergy sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, had made his way to Alan Brini's North End apartment -- distraught, exhausted, desperate for a place to sleep.

His girlfriend, Kristin Carter, had just barred McSorley from her Taunton home, fed up with a drug addiction that had worsened like a gathering hurricane since McSorley received nearly $200,000 in a landmark settlement in 2002.

Now, he was inside Brini's cluttered apartment near Faneuil Hall Marketplace in the early hours of Feb. 22, sobbing as the older man sought to comfort him.

"He put his arms around me," recounted Brini, a confidant of McSorley's. "He was crying and said, 'She did it again.' "

McSorley, 29, sat in a soft black leather chair, his favorite spot in the apartment where Brini shuffled from room to room with the aid of a cane and tended to a serious nerve disorder with powerful drugs that filled his medicine cabinets.

All during that night, McSorley placed call after call to Carter, as Brini fell asleep from medication that sometimes blotted out entire days. When Brini woke in the bathroom, nearly 24 hours later, McSorley was lying flat on the bed.

"I said, 'Patrick, are you cold?' " Brini, 64, recalled. "I tried to give him artificial respiration, but everything was so hard."

A 911 call from an emergency transmitter draped around Brini's neck brought police to the apartment. Until that time, Brini said, he continued to try to revive McSorley, refusing to accept his friend's death until he heard an officer remark, "He's A to Z."

"In my heart, I knew he was gone, but I didn't want to accept it," Brini said, the tears falling from his eyes and onto his shirt.

The Suffolk District Attorney's office has labeled McSorley's death, alone and untended, a drug overdose.

But among McSorley's family and friends -- among those who watched, stunned, as this unremarkable Hyde Park man suddenly became the telegenic face of the clergy scandal -- the death seemed the sadly predictable destiny of a troubled project kid who found his mission in helping others, but was tragically unable to help himself.

An unlikely spokesman McSorley burst into the public eye in 2001 with an unexpected intensity that mirrored the widening impact of the clergy sex-abuse scandal. He and 85 other plaintiffs represented by attorney Mitchell Garabedian pursued civil claims against the Boston Archdiocese stemming from their abuse at the hands of the Rev. John J. Geoghan, who was accused of molesting nearly 150 children over three decades.

But almost alone among the victims, McSorley gravitated to the spotlight with an ease and enthusiasm that belied his roots as the youngest of six children from a poor Boston family that had lurched from dysfunctional homes in Mission Hill to Jamaica Plain to Hyde Park.

McSorley attended depositions of Cardinal Bernard Law, sat beside Garabedian at news conference after news conference, and spent many of his days in the company of out-of-town reporters seeking the same insight, over and over, into what had become the biggest scandal ever to shake the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

His mother, Geraldine McSorley, was startled by her son's sudden transformation into an eager, ready source for the media.

"I said, 'Patrick, you don't know what you're into there. This'll be something that goes down in the annals of Catholic history,' " she recalled. "He had gone nowhere, gotten nowhere, and done nothing, but then he found himself in the midst of all this social turmoil. My son was like a child the way it went."

To Garabedian, who did not know McSorley before he walked into the lawyer's State Street office to talk about Geoghan, McSorley was a driven, guileless champion for those victims who could not face the cameras to speak of their anger and shame.

"Patrick's legacy can be summed up in one word: courage," Garabedian said.

To other survivors of Geoghan's molestation, McSorley was the street-smart articulator of their hunger for delayed justice.

"When I saw him on TV speaking out, he made me want to be that person," said Alexa MacPherson, 29, of Dorchester, a victim of clergy sex abuse who befriended McSorley in the last year of his life.

But to Stacey McSorley Stokes, Patrick's oldest sibling, her brother's role in the limelight was a passion she opposed. "I didn't think it was a good idea, only because of the aftereffects I thought it could have on Patrick," Stokes said. "I was like, 'Pat! Pat? What are you doing, bro?' "

Still, she did not fight her brother's penchant for the spotlight.

"He had a mission going on, and he was on a roll, and he had an aim and he was going for it," she said. "But after the case was ended, after all was said and done, he had to look at himself, and all that pain came back to him."

That pain had roots in McSorley's abuse by Geoghan when he was 12 years old. But the trauma of a chaotic family life also appears to have contributed to a dangerously fragile spirit.

Troubled family Billy McSorley and Geraldine Payne were little-noticed products of Boston's working class, she from the shadows of Mission Church in Roxbury and he from South Boston. They met as teen-agers and married in 1965, moving to the Mission Hill neighborhood where Payne's world had been dominated by the spires of the nearby church and by the Catholic faith that prompted many of her peers to become priests and nuns.

"When you walked away from church, you felt like you were walking on a spring of clouds," said Patrick's mother, now 61. "The church was very important. That was your spirituality right there."

Her faith helped Geraldine McSorley weather the rigors of a tumultuous marriage in which her laborer husband bounced from job to job, and brought a ferocious drinking problem into a household that once squatted in a condemned building in Jamaica Plain.

Strains of mental illness in some family members combined with other problems to break up the McSorleys. Three children were sent to a Catholic foster home; two to state custody.

However, most of the family reunited in Jamaica Plain near St. Andrew's Church, where a small, smiling priest named John J. Geoghan imparted a sense of comfort to his blue-collar parishioners and their children at the affiliated Catholic school. Stacey Stokes, Patrick's sister, recalls Geoghan as a reassuring, non-threatening man who seemed imbued with a quiet peace.

But if the world seemed stable enough at church, the domestic scene had not improved. The McSorleys moved again, this time to subsidized housing in Hyde Park, where Billy McSorley continued to drink heavily. He ended his life one night in 1980 by jumping from a railroad bridge.

Patrick, the youngest, was 6 years old. But the worst was still to come. In 1986, as Stokes walked in the Forest Hills neighborhood, she met Geoghan by chance. The fateful location remains etched in her mind: Walk Hill and Wenham streets.

There, she hugged this avuncular reminder of her school days and told him of her father's suicide. "I was so happy to see him because he was such a humble, little man," Stokes said.

Geoghan asked where the family lived. The next day, Geoghan offered his condolences in person to Geraldine McSorley and offered to take Patrick, then 12, out for an ice cream.

For a poor boy, an ice cream spoke of rare luxury. But Patrick unknowingly stepped into the predator's path, one that the priest had trod before. On the drive back to Patrick's house, Geoghan patted the boy's leg, moved his hand to Patrick's genitals, and fondled the stunned child as the priest masturbated himself.

After the car stopped, Patrick emerged in numbed disbelief, the ice cream dripping down his hand and forearm as Geoghan warned him not to speak of the incident.

"When Patrick walked in the house, I knew something was wrong," Geraldine recalled.

A double life Patrick eventually told his mother about his encounter with Geoghan, but the shame of the incident and the intimidating authority of a church to which his mother always had deferred combined to keep the episode closely guarded for years. McSorley did not even disclose the incident to his sister until 1999, when Stokes mentioned over dinner that Geoghan, their former parish priest, had been named in sex-abuse complaints reported in the media.

McSorley rose from the table, left the room briefly, and returned to tell his story. Nothing was ever the same again.

At first reluctant to join the growing number of plaintiffs who said Geoghan had molested them, McSorley took the advice of his sister to join the lawsuits and "validate" what had happened to him.

"He said, 'OK,' just like that," Stokes recalled. "But I didn't expect him to be a spokesman. I didn't expect him to go all out."

Garabedian said he noticed something special in McSorley, something that would translate well to television, news conferences, and public appearances. "He always spoke from the heart, he always spoke sincerely, and there was a certain genuineness to him that couldn't be defeated," Garabedian said.

McSorley also had a street-bred fearlessness, his admirers said, that gave him the confidence to venture before the cameras that other plaintiffs shunned.

But if McSorley combined a blue-collar sense of virtue and verve, family and friends said, he also appeared to be the poster boy that could attract attention and sympathy to the case.

"He was the young, vulnerable victim," MacPherson said. "He was the handsome boy that's standing up for justice."

Garabedian played a big role in encouraging McSorley to become the face of the scandal, MacPherson said. But McSorley also relished the spotlight in a cause to which he had become wholeheartedly attached, she added.

"I think the only time he felt in control was when he was out there doing that," MacPherson said.

The idea of "control" was, literally, a concept of night and day with McSorley. During the day, he busied himself with the case and media requests. At night, Stokes said, a frightening world of hard drugs and shadowy friends ruled his life.

Cocaine, OxyContin, Percocet, marijuana, and alcohol were frequent means of escape, Carter said, even after she became pregnant with Patrick Jr. six years ago. There also was heroin, which his family and friends agree McSorley abused but which they rarely saw used in their presence.

The drugs changed McSorley dramatically. Normally caring, breezy, nonjudgmental, and generous, the natural charisma that drew people to McSorley turned dark and ominous.

"He became a different person when he did drugs," MacPherson said. Overly self-righteous. Fidgety. Prone to short-tempered outbursts.

Stokes said she became concerned about the effect of McSorley's behavior on her two daughters, now 12 and 4. "It was in this kitchen about a year ago," she said recently at her Taunton home. "When he came in, he was ready and reeling," Stokes said of Patrick's startling mood.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. What are you on?' " Stokes recalled. "I realized he's going to get himself killed."

In a June 2003 incident widely reported as a mysterious, accidental plunge into the Neponset River, McSorley actually did try to commit suicide, MacPherson said.

Brini, his North End friend, said McSorley had been high on PCP when he fell into the river beside Pope John Paul II Park in Dorchester. Although McSorley denied at a news conference that he had tried to kill himself, MacPherson said McSorley later told her he did not want to leave the river alive.

"He wanted the pain to end. He wanted the memories to end," MacPherson said. "He didn't know how to pick up the pieces."

The legal settlement in September 2002, in which the archdiocese agreed to give $10 million to the 86 plaintiffs, did not ease McSorley's pain. Neither did McSorley's share.

If anything, his family and friends agreed, the windfall hastened his death.

Financial downfall The money became the fuel that stoked McSorley's worsening drug addiction. "When you think that things would get better, they spiraled out of control for him," Stokes said.

At the time of the settlement, McSorley said: "The money is not going to change my life. My heart is always going to be broken because of this."

But according to relatives and friends, McSorley spent tens of thousands of dollars on a Caribbean cruise, cottage rentals on Cape Cod, a speedboat, and a new drum set. A fast life had suddenly become faster.

"He knew what he wanted to do with the money -- enjoy it, poor kid," McSorley's mother said. "After the money, he got confused."

McSorley's aunt, Jane Scarborough of Quincy, said the ready cash could not mask the pain that had been dredged up, relived, and recounted in public.

"He said he was sorry he came forward because his life then became screwed up," said Scarborough. She had cared for McSorley for three years after his father died, and even she did not know of the abuse until after he joined the lawsuit.

But the money began to dry up. MacPherson said her friend sometimes would beg for a few dollars to buy a cup of coffee or a pack of cigarettes. Brini estimated he spent $15,000 on McSorley's needs, from hundreds of parking tickets to co-signing for a car loan.

"Last summer, he was almost unrecognizable," Carter said. "He was very thin. His eyes just looked different, almost like he didn't have a care, like everything was for the drugs."

Less than a month after McSorley was pulled from the Neponset River and placed on life support, he was arrested in a Dedham motel and charged with possession of the powerful painkiller fentanyl, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia that included hypodermic needles. The charges were continued without a finding for a year, with the condition McSorley remain clean. After that, according to family and friends, McSorley's habits waned somewhat but remained worrisome.

"He had no friends who were clean," MacPherson said. "His cellphone was ringing off the hook. People knew he had the money or he had something on him."

Brini recalled nights when a drug-dazed McSorley would come to the apartment, unable to recognize Brini, swinging appliances around the room and punching gaping holes in the walls. And then there were the sober times, MacPherson said, when McSorley would be painfully sick from drug withdrawal, sitting for hours in waiting rooms at various hospitals with cracked, bleeding feet, pleading for admission to detoxification and rehabilitation units.

"I knew he was going to die," Stokes said. "It was only a matter of time."

Garabedian said he was concerned about McSorley's drug habit and tried to help. At one time, friends said, McSorley received church-paid treatment after Garabedian prodded the archdiocese to help his client.

The lawyer, however, said that attributing McSorley's problems solely to drugs and alcohol is a mistake.

"It's convenient to blame other sources. The blame really lies with the pedophile priests and their enablers," Garabedian said. "The monsters who created this know who they are: One of them has passed away, and one of them has gotten out of the country."

The villains, according to Garabedian, are Geoghan, who was killed in prison last year, and Law, who has been appointed to a ceremonial position in Rome.

McSorley's mother said she still does not blame Law, asking how the cardinal could be responsible for the day-to-day observation of priests suspected of pedophilia. And Geraldine McSorley believes that Geoghan's death caused her son to question whether the high-profile case was worth another tragedy.

"I know it was wrong," McSorley's mother recalled him saying of Geoghan's abuse. "But was it worth a man dying over? Was it worth a man's life?"

Carter said she misses McSorley terribly, and her 5-year-old son, Patrick Jr., echoes that sentiment in a small apartment where pictures of the smiling family are everywhere.

Despite the turmoil and the anxiety, McSorley's absence has left a void in the circle of people who cared for him. The irony of his death -- quickened, his family believes, by his participation in the case -- also has a permanent place in their hearts.

"He had no coping skills," Stokes said. "Here he was, fighting for everyone else. But he couldn't even fight for himself." 

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