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A priest by turns demanding and timid trod prison's path

Second of three parts

On the eve of his first Christmas in prison, John J. Geoghan sat in his cell on the brink of despair -- and surrender.

The torments he said he suffered at the hands of a few correction officers had worn him down.

The sanction they had imposed for offenses Geoghan insisted were trumped up stung too much: For 12 weeks, the defrocked priest's ability to talk with or see his older sister Catherine had been taken away.

Since childhood, the two had been inseparable. And now she was his treasured connection to the world beyond the walls.

And so, the 67-year-old Geoghan suggested he was ready to abandon the losing battle he'd been waging against the guards and the rules of the medium-security prison to which he'd been sentenced.

"After eighty-four days of no contact with my seriously ill sister, we are finally back in contact, but only on the phone as I am afraid of our safety in personal visits," Geoghan wrote in a Dec. 24, 2002, letter to a legal adviser. ". . . I think I now have decided I am only interested in survival and keeping out of difficulty so I do not lose contact with my sister."

For Geoghan, survival meant not only securing his personal safety, but continuing his unlikely bid to prove his innocence. He wanted to be free to focus on the appeal of his conviction for fondling a 10-year-old boy in a Waltham swimming pool.

Better to reserve his energies for that cause than to live in fear at MCI-Concord.

Better perhaps to consider a transfer to another prison where he might be left alone.

"Unfortunately, I've found myself so vulnerable I shy away from justice," Geoghan wrote to his adviser, in correspondence made available to the Globe. "My goal now is only my appeals. . . . May the Lord continue to `grace' you in your precious work and bless your grandchildren. With the greatest respect, I am John Geoghan."

Geoghan was, from the start, a strange sort of inmate, a man with remarkably little self-awareness of what had landed him behind bars.

His church had paid $10 million to settle 84 complaints against him. He had been tried and convicted in the criminal case. He had admitted, to a psychiatrist, that he had fondled children since the early 1960s, and that he was still sexually attracted to little boys.

Yet he carried himself as an innocent.

His insistence that he had been wrongly accused and convicted was one of the things that rankled some of the Correction officers who controlled his prison existence. It also irked many of his fellow inmates -- murderers, robbers, and rapists who looked upon a pedophile as the lowest form of prison life.

In their eyes, Geoghan was also something of a fool. He showed no respect for a key part of the unspoken prison code: Inmates who want to be left alone should keep a low profile, bowing to the petty tyrannies of the cellblock.

John Geoghan wasn't built that way.

He wasn't one to just let it pass -- as a more pliant, or canny, prisoner would have done -- when, as he alleged, he was body-checked by a guard in Concord's visiting room last year.

"You assaulted me," he told the officer. It was a remark for which he paid dearly, losing his access to the telephone and to the visitation room, his only opportunities to talk to his sister.

Inmates who watched Geoghan were puzzled by his behavior.

"One inmate told me that Geoghan, in his naivete, must have been given bad advice by other prisoners," said James R. Pingeon, director of litigation for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "He was told to follow up instead of letting go. If a guard is abusing you, harassing you, this man's view is you let go, ignore it. Geoghan may have been advised to not let go. And that just brings down the abuse even more."

When he felt set upon, or believed he was being unjustly accused, Geoghan could grow prickly and indignant.

When left alone, many fellow inmates said, he was typically timid, polite, almost childlike.

One man serving a sentence for second-degree murder who asked that his name be withheld, said in a telephone interview from the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center -- the facility to which Geoghan was transferred -- that the former priest was the "most naive person I've met in 30 years in prison."

"I tried to educate him," the prisoner said. "He didn't know anything about the rules or regulations. He didn't know how to talk to people. He didn't know what to say around people. . . . He was a very passive man, and when you were around him you could tell that. And when inmates see that they take full advantage. It's like meat for a shark. They just attack it."

Those contrasting personality traits -- fuming when accused of misconduct, timid when left to himself -- would be familiar to those who knew him as a priest who often vexed his superiors with overweening demands, but made no mark among clergy, except, of course, as a sexual criminal.

That was back in the days when Christmas Eve for Father John J. Geoghan meant he was the contented center of attention, celebrating Mass at midnight in brightly lit churches decked with holiday greens.

Something monstrous

From the summer of 1996, when he was first publicly tied to the sexual assault of children, to the summer of 2003, when he was strangled on the floor of his prison cell, Geoghan's name has conjured up something monstrous.

He personified the Roman Catholic Church's clergy sexual abuse crisis, a scandal that sent tremors through the American church and forced Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign in disgrace last December.

Geoghan exploited the prestige of his Roman collar to sexually attack little boys, sometimes fondling them, sometimes doing much more. The children's parents, proud to have a priest in the house, gave him unquestioned access.

Even those who loved him acknowledge the etched-in horror of those images, and how they have obscured Geoghan's residual, fractured humanity.

"You get attached with a label as he has been, and all other adjectives and descriptions just fade away because it's so spectacular," said Charles D. Houlihan Jr., Geoghan's cousin and a lawyer from Simsbury, Conn. "It's difficult to believe that anybody accused as he has been has vital human qualities, and John did."

During a lengthy interview about the life and death of his cousin, Houlihan said Geoghan was failed by two institutions. He said the Catholic Church could have given Geoghan an administrative post at the earliest sign of his abuse. The state Department of Correction should have been able to keep an obvious target for violence safe from harm, he said.

"I think the church failed John," Houlihan said. "There could have been a lot done to meet their obligations and give John an opportunity to do something useful."

When Houlihan remembers his cousin, his mind's eye focuses not on the prisoner or the pedophile, but on the smiling priest who once proudly introduced him and his sister to parishioners one Sunday morning during Mass in Weston.

"The John Geoghan that I know is a genuinely likable man who is sensitive to others and cares deeply about others," Houlihan said.

And, Houlihan said, Geoghan cared about no one more than his sister Catherine. He wrote to her from prison nearly every day.

"His faith and his sister were his two comforts," Geoghan's cousin said.

But the letters were not a daily diary of the mistreatment Geoghan said he endured in the protective custody unit at Concord, where he told his lawyer that his nickname was "Satan" and where he once found feces smeared in his cell.

Instead, Geoghan wrote about the banalities of prison life: the food he ate, the exercise he got, and how he still managed to worship God from the privacy of his small cell.

"John was very protective of Cathy," Houlihan said. "She's had health issues. He did not want his worries to exacerbate her health issues. . . . And so, in that tenor . . . his letters were very protective of her feelings. He could have been sitting on a beach somewhere."

From their earliest days, young "Jackie" Geoghan and his sister were constant companions, neighbors and childhood acquaintances recalled. While other neighborhood children ran off to buy penny candy at the nearby convenience store, or to romp along Sand Hills Beach in Scituate, the Geoghan children clung tightly to the hem of their mother's skirt.

Their summer house in Scituate, shuttered now for the winter, overlooks the ocean. For years, the Geoghans religiously observed an evening ritual, walking with their mother on a two-mile loop down to the historic lighthouse that guards the entrance to Scituate Harbor.

It was a routine that they would continue into adulthood -- even after their mother's death in 1994.

"They were so meek and just very childlike, both of them," one summer neighbor said. "The way they carried themselves -- just their sweetness -- you just wondered whether they were naive. Even as adults, they always struck me as very childlike."

Brush with the law

Protected for years by the secret ways of his archdiocesan bosses, John Geoghan's first close brush with the law -- the first time he worried that his conduct could land him in jail -- came five days after Christmas in 1994.

Police and the Middlesex County district attorney's office began investigating charges of Geoghan's sexual misconduct with boys from a Waltham housing complex. The boys said the priest had pulled down their pants. Investigators said Geoghan also talked inappropriately with the children on the telephone about their sexual development.

Six hours after the Rev. Brian M. Flatley, an archdiocesan official, alerted Dr. Edward Messner, a Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist, about Geoghan's alleged misconduct, Geoghan was sitting across from Messner in the doctor's office on Boston's Emerson Place.

In some ways, the priest told the psychiatrist on Dec. 30, 1994, he felt dead already.

With police and prosecutors closing in, Geoghan would meet with Messner 40 times over the next year and a half. The therapy sessions, and accompanying psychiatric reports, are a window into Geoghan's psyche, yielding details about his persona that would resonate later in his conduct as a prisoner.

"I feel depressed, tired, and beaten -- on the verge of death row," Geoghan told Messner. "I feel condemned."

Geoghan confided to his psychiatrist that he had been molesting boys as far back as the early 1960s, according to Messner's December 2001 deposition, during which the doctor read directly from his session notes with Geoghan.

Geoghan "admits to his share of fondling children years ago," Messner testified. "He says that he was never out of control. `It was wrong, however,' he said."

As Martha Coakley, then Middlesex County's assistant district attorney, built a case against him, Geoghan resisted suggestions of a plea bargain. He referred to his accusers' mother as a "poor slob." He vowed to "avoid dysfunctional families in the future."

"He had tried to help the poor, unfortunate woman," Catherine Geoghan would later say, when asked about the accusations during a deposition in 2002. "And then she turned on him."

Though well aware of his legal peril, Geoghan's outward manner seemed strangely nonchalant, as if he believed that his troubles would be behind him soon.

He traveled with his elderly uncle, Monsignor Mark Keohane, to Ireland in the spring of 1995 and returned with a gift package of three nips of Bailey's Irish Cream for Messner. That summer, he spent time at the family home in Scituate, reading, praying, and renewing an interest in golf.

That fall, he played tour guide, escorting friends from Ireland to see the cranberry bogs of Plymouth County and the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

He helped his sister clean her attic. He harvested hay from salt marshes for use in his garden. He celebrated Mass with his 93-year-old uncle, a man he considered "the perfect substitute father." His own father died before Geoghan had turned 6.

He was cheered when, in June 1996, the archdiocese allowed him to celebrate the funeral Mass of his childhood friend, Maurice J. Tobin Jr., the son of the former governor. Tobin's father also had been Harry Truman's labor secretary. Geoghan told the congregation about a summer's day in Scituate when the White House switchboard tried to reach Tobin at his summer home.

A young Jackie Geoghan and his playmate, the younger Tobin, answered the phone. The two boys, in disbelief that the leader of the free world was really on the other end of the line, had inadvertently harassed the president of the United States.

In an otherwise miserable summer for Geoghan, it was a rarity, a fond and funny moment.

During his therapy sessions, he told Messner that at one meeting with Father Flatley, the archdiocesan official pronounced Geoghan "a pedophile, a liar, and a manipulator."

And, Geoghan acknowledged to his psychiatrist, he was still having sexual impulses for boys.

Near the end of his sessions with Messner, Geoghan was examined by a Massachusetts General Hospital psychologist. The traits of Geoghan-the-patient would later exhibit themselves in Geoghan-the-prisoner.

"He was reluctant to admit to minor faults," Mark Alan Blais, the MGH psychologist, reported. "This finding reflects both his conscious effort to present himself in a positive light, and a deeper character-based deficit in his ability to accurately apprise the quality of his behavior and actions."

In an earlier assessment, another psychiatrist had deemed Geoghan to be "markedly immature, and prone to cyclical acting out often in sexual ways. . . . We thus believe that Father Geoghan is at high risk."

Coakley thought so, too.

Her office investigated Geoghan's misconduct in Waltham but was unable to find sufficient grounds for criminal charges.

Geoghan's lewd talk with minors on the telephone was useful merely as leverage, she said, to make sure Geoghan was barred from further contact with children.

Only later, she said, did she learn the breadth of Geoghan's abuse.

"He was the perfect storm of someone who apparently had a sexual predilection for children," Coakley said.

By the time Coakley would see Geoghan in court again, his misconduct would be the talk of the nation.

His archdiocesan superiors would order him into a treatment center, force him into retirement, strip him of his church-subsidized apartment, and deny his request to even maintain a mailbox at his former church quarters.

Geoghan began planning for a new life, telling friends he looked forward to taking college courses in creative writing and computer science.

In the summer of 1998, Cardinal Law announced that Geoghan had been defrocked. "This man can never again present himself as a priest," Law said.

When lawyers later asked Catherine Geoghan how her brother reacted to Law's move to strip him of the Roman collar of which he was so proud, the former priest's sister replied: "Well, just that he's made a grave mistake. . . . He prays for [Law] every day."

That summer on the patio of their summer home in Scituate, where she and her brother had spent summers with their mother and uncle since 1953, the relatives of one of Geoghan's alleged victims paid an unwelcome visit.

"They came and sat," Catherine Geoghan said in a Sept. 8, 2000, deposition. "I had to call the police. They told the police they weren't sitting there, they were just waiting for Father Geoghan. They moved onto the sea wall. They put down their chairs, their water bottles, their drinks, their binoculars, their cameras.

"That's the kind of people you're dealing with."

And under oath that day, Catherine Geoghan made it clear that her brother -- by then a multiply diagnosed pedophile -- had not told her what he had openly acknowledged to his therapists.

Asked if her brother got upset about reports that he was abusing children, Catherine Geoghan replied: "Of course he's upset. Because they're all false charges."

Attack at the Boys and Girls Club

The sexual attacks of John J. Geoghan were as many as they were depraved.

He assaulted children in his car, in their homes, and in public places.

Frank Leary, the fifth of six children raised by a single mother on welfare, said Geoghan lured him to his upstairs bedroom in the rectory of St. Andrew's Church in Jamaica Plain in the summer of 1974. The priest placed the boy on his lap and fondled him through his shorts as they recited the Hail Mary together, he said.

Maryetta Dussourd also encountered Geoghan at St. Andrew's.

She was raising her own four children -- three boys and a girl -- and her niece's four boys. Geoghan, she said, was regularly molesting the seven boys, on one occasion taking one of them overnight to his family home in West Roxbury, where Geoghan's elderly mother lived.

The boy cried and asked Geoghan to stop when the priest attacked him in the middle of the night. The next morning at breakfast, when Geoghan's mother asked him about the nighttime weeping, Geoghan explained it away.

"He said it was only his first time away from home and that's why he was crying," Dussourd said.

For years, Geoghan's heinous misconduct was beyond the reach of prosecutors, barred by the statute of limitations from pressing criminal charges.

That changed in late 1999, when Middlesex County prosecutors indicted Geoghan for misconduct that -- compared with many of his attacks -- was hardly his most abhorrent. They said Geoghan had squeezed a 10-year-old boy on the backside in the pool at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club in 1991.

It would prove to be his passport to prison.

"In the scheme of things -- and I know this has been much talked about -- this doesn't seem like a big deal, does it?" Coakley, now the Middlesex County district attorney, said in an interview.

But she said Geoghan "was someone who was a dangerous guy in terms of kids. And that's why we brought the charges."

Geoghan's trial took place in January 2002 amid the full fury of media coverage about Geoghan's history of sexual misconduct and the church's efforts to cover it up.

During his opening statement on Jan. 16, 2002, Geoghan's lawyer, Geoffrey C. Packard, told the jury that the case before them was hardly complex.

"The allegation, in a nutshell, in the fall of 1991, when [the victim] was 10 years old and a fifth-grader at the Plympton School, he went to the swimming pool at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club, and he says that John Geoghan squeezed his butt once," Packard said. "He got out of the pool, and he told his mother. That's it. Just about everything else is embellishment and window dressing."

Coakley said the case against Geoghan was hardly a slam dunk. But the testimony of the victim -- straightforward, earnest, and without theatrics -- seemed to register with the jury.

Then a 20-year-old college junior, Geoghan's victim testified that he was trying to teach himself to dive that day, a skill that most of his young friends had acquired. Geoghan swam over and offered to help, issuing verbal instructions for 10 to 15 minutes.

The boy said he recognized the priest because he had seen him driving through his neighborhood.

"As I dived into the pool, Father Geoghan grabbed my butt," the victim testified. "It was kind of like bells went off. I got really nervous.

"I was embarrassed," the victim testified, adding that he quickly swam away. "I was nervous, scared."

In her closing argument to the jury, prosecutor Lynn C. Rooney acknowledged that Geoghan's conduct in the Waltham pool, was not "the most egregious act of sexual touching."

"But when a grown man puts his hand inside the shorts of a 10-year-old boy and touches skin on skin, it is wrong," Rooney said. "It is indecent. And it is a crime."

The jurors agreed. After deliberating for eight hours, they convicted Geoghan, then 66.

"Where am I going now?" Geoghan asked as he was led away.

He was headed for his first night in jail.

All that was left for the court was to decide on Geoghan's punishment.

Packard, noting that Geoghan had no prior convictions and perhaps suffered from a psychological disorder, asked Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin to sentence him to three years of probation and close supervision that could include electronic monitoring.

"Were it not for the storm of publicity that surrounds him -- if his name were John Smith and not John Geoghan -- this defendant would almost undoubtedly be placed on probation," Packard said in his sentencing memorandum.

He urged Hamlin not sacrifice Geoghan "on the altar of public opinion."

"He was and is also, Your Honor, a good brother to his sister, Catherine, his sole remaining direct family, a woman who has stood by his side, as he has by her, for many years," Packard told Hamlin at the Feb. 21, 2002, sentencing hearing.

But Hamlin was unmoved.

She accepted Rooney's recommendation for the maximum sentence possible, nine to 10 years in state prison, and made it clear that while the jury considered evidence of a single instance of abuse, she was considering Geoghan's admission that he molested "other boys for whom he was not ever charged."

Geoghan, Hamlin concluded, was a "dangerous pedophile."

With that, Geoghan was driven from Cambridge to his new home at MCI-Concord.

He could have been freed in six years.

A dangerous transfer

As a new year dawned last January, Geoghan maintained his self-imposed moratorium on visits with his sister.

They would continue to speak only by telephone.

"Cathy and I agree strongly on no visits," Geoghan wrote last January in a letter to the Rev. Richard J. Butler, the secretary of his 1962 graduating class at St. John's Seminary and now a pastor in Stow. "I've been threatened by the guards, and she has been hassled and roughly treated."

What Geoghan considered mistreatment at the hands of a few rogue guards, senior state Department of Correction officials considered a symptom of a chronic inmate discipline problem that had to be addressed.

By then, the department had notified the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union that it was planning to open a new protective custody unit at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley for inmates considered too aggressive for the unit Geoghan occupied at Concord.

But before Geoghan could be considered a candidate for the new Level 6 facility -- maximum security -- his case would have to be considered by a department classification board. The panel was composed of a Correction officer and two Correctional program officers. It examined Geoghan's criminal history, considered whether he had enemies at Concord, and reviewed his family situation and academic background.

After undertaking that review in March, the classification board voted 3-0 to keep Geoghan in Concord, a medium-security facility.

"They were going to do their job," said Leslie Walker, director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. "They were not going to send this guy off to Souza just because they had guard problems. Is he a violent prisoner? No. Then he shouldn't be a Level 6 prisoner."

But within days, the panel's recommendation was overridden.

Scott Anderson, MCI-Concord's deputy superintendent, and Lori Cresey, the Department of Correction's deputy director of central classification, ruled that Geoghan should be shipped to higher security. Diane Silva, the prison system's director of classification, agreed.

Geoghan was headed for Shirley. He told a legal adviser that he received news directly from Cresey after he was cited yet again for misconduct.

"This was based on Mr. Geoghan's accumulation of [12] disciplinary reports and his overall poor institutional adjustments at MCI-Concord," said Kelly Nantel, a department spokeswoman.

But lawyers for inmates and one former Department of Correction official familiar with Geoghan's classification said other factors were at work.

"The [Correction officers] union wanted him out of there," the former Department of Correction official told the Globe. "They wanted this guy moved."

The 4,800-member Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union said it had nothing to do with Geoghan's transfer. "As far as the accusations that we lobbied the administration, that's false," said Robert W. Brouillette, the union's business agent. "We never did that."

However, one inmate in the protective custody unit at Concord told Pingeon, the legal services litigation director, that two or three days after Geoghan left for Shirley, Anderson was walking through the Concord unit.

The deputy superintendent cordially greeted Correction Officer Cosmo A. Bisazza, the guard Geoghan alleged constantly harassed him, according to the inmate's account.

"You finally got what you wanted," Anderson told Bisazza, according to the inmate's account.

Justin Latini, the Department of Correction's public affairs director, declined to answer questions about the circumstances of Geoghan's transfer or about details of his incarceration, citing the pending investigation.

Houlihan, Geoghan's cousin from Connecticut, said if the Department of Correction had focused on the complaints lodged against Geoghan's guards, the classification board's recommendation would have been sustained.

"Maybe protective custody in Concord is an appropriate place to be if the guards aren't harassing and abusing you," Houlihan said.

Walker called Geoghan's transfer the product of the Department of Correction's long-standing inclination to send as many prisoners as possible to higher-security prisons.

"What I think happened is what happens all the time," Walker said. "It's a mess. There's this objective, point-based system on paper that is completely ignored and overridden based on politics, union contracts, the weather. We have no idea."

If Geoghan fought the transfer to Souza-Baranowski, there is no formal record of it, according to his legal advisers.

And if the decision to move him into maximum security was an administrative blunder, a violation of common-sense policy-making, after 13 months at MCI-Concord, Geoghan himself seemed at peace with the change.

Walker visited him in the maximum-security prison's clean and brightly lit visitors' room just after his arrival in early April.

Geoghan, she said, was frail, stooped, and pallid.

But he told her he found his food warm and palatable. He raved about the condiments.

"This is a guy who had had such a bad time that being able to actually put his own condiments on his own food meant a great deal to him," Walker said.

He did not have as much free time as he had at Concord.

"It's worth trading liberty for security," Geoghan told the lawyer.

Geoghan, now in a single cell, said he was occupying himself by reading, writing, and praying.

Above all, he said, he felt safe.

"Compared to Concord, he was very happy at Souza-Baranowski," Walker said, recounting her early-spring visit.

Within weeks, Geoghan would have a new next-door neighbor.

Until 1999, he was known as Darrin Smiledge, a self-described neo-Nazi serving a life sentence for murder.

But now he had a new identity.

His name was Joseph Druce.

Tomorrow: A sense of security. A fatal attack.

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

From the earliest days, John J. Geoghan and his sister, Catherine, seen in court in 2002, were constant companions.
From the earliest days, John J. Geoghan and his sister, Catherine, seen in court in 2002, were constant companions. (AP File Photo)
Geoghan's cousin, lawyer Charles D. Houlihan Jr., said the former priest was failed by the prison system and the Catholic Church.
Geoghan's cousin, lawyer Charles D. Houlihan Jr., said the former priest was failed by the prison system and the Catholic Church. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
Attorney Leslie Walker and James Pingeon of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. A panel of Correction officers decided not to transfer Geoghan.
Attorney Leslie Walker and James Pingeon of the Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. A panel of Correction officers decided not to transfer Geoghan. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)

The series
Disciplinary reports
Between April 2, 2002, and Oct. 2, 2003, John J. Geoghan received at least 11 disciplinary reports for violating the code of prison conduct at MCI-Concord.
Letters from Geoghan
The Globe obtained several letters written by Geoghan in prison.
Death reports
The Globe obtained incident reports on Geoghan's death filed by Correction officers at the Souza-Baranowski facility.
 Read the incident reports
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