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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A justified sentence?


ohn Geoghan was sent to prison not for what he did but for what he is -- a pedophile priest, defrocked but in denial about the crimes he is said to have committed against children across 35 years as a catholic clergyman.

In sentencing a defendant with no prior criminal record to a 10-year prison term on a single count of indecent assault, Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin has turned this high-profile case on its head and, in the process, dealt the cause of justice a severe case of whiplash. Protected for years by a black-robed cleric who did the wrong thing out of misplaced compassion for a sinner, Geoghan was undone last week by a black-robed jurist who did the wrong thing out of misguided compassion for those who were sinned against.

It is hard to feel anything but relief that Geoghan is behind bars, a safe remove from the children on whom he preyed with the complicity of his and their church. It is hard not to feel some satisfaction that the court was willing to hear Geoghan's victims and mete out punishment that the cardinal would not. But justice is not just about ends; it is also about means.

No student of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts seriously believes that the sentence imposed is the sentence warranted by the single crime for which Geoghan was convicted last month. A jury found that the 66-year-old former priest had molested a 10-year-old boy when he squeezed his buttocks at a swimming pool a decade ago. Ten years?

Hamlin insisted she was not punishing Geoghan for his other alleged crimes or for the failure of other authorities (read Cardinal Bernard Law and his advisers) to rein him in when they had the chance. But it is impossible not to see this sentence as compensatory, not just for a boy fondled in a pool but for all those Geoghan might have hurt under cover of his ministry. He stands accused of molesting as many as 130 children in civil cases and faces criminal prosecution on two child rape charges in Suffolk County.

Hamlin's sentence falls years outside the sentencing guidelines, as far on the tough side as Judge Ernest Murphy's recent decision to grant probation to a convicted rapist was on the lenient side. Yet there is no call for her ouster as there has been for Murphy and Judge Maria Lopez, who 18 months ago let a child molester off with no jail time.

Hamlin's sentence, like those of her much-maligned colleagues, falls within the bounds of judicial discretion. But the fact is, in Massachusetts, those bounds are overly broad, giving both liberal and conservative judges too much leeway and providing too little accountability. It has been more than six years since a special commission proposed reforms that would bring some consistency to criminal sentencing. The Legislature has yet to act on the measure that would allow judges to weigh mitigating circumstances in each case while responding to society's demand for punishment.

To her credit, Hamlin did what Murphy and Lopez did not. She explained her thinking to a public skeptical of judicial motives because of the secrecy in which they are shrouded. But she strains credibility when she insists she was not influenced by the pedophilia scandal engulfing the Archdiocese of Boston. She could no more avoid that influence than Acting Governor Jane Swift, who just as incredibly claims not to have been swayed in the Amirault case by the same maelstrom.

Why should we care if punishment does not fit the crime? Because when the pendulum swings, it can swing fast and far. Damage control can cause damage of its own. The shepherd who refused to warn his flock of the wolves among them now releases names daily of every priest ever accused of misconduct, whether the allegations have been substantiated or not. Candor without context is as dangerous a mix as secrecy and scandal.

John Geoghan should be punished for what he did, not for what he is. But that is not what happened last week in Sandra Hamlin's courtroom.

Eileen McNamara's e-mail address is

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 2/24/2002.
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