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Catholic Church Faces Scrutiny in Pedophilia Case

Religion: Ex-priest's criminal trial is to open today, and the Boston cardinal has been sued for his handling of the scores of accusations.


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a case that promises to shed new light on how the Catholic Church has dealt with pedophilia in the clergy, opening arguments are expected to begin today in the trial of a former priest accused of child molestation.

John J. Geoghan, 66, faces one assault charge for allegedly putting his hands down the bathing suit of a 10-year-old boy in 1991. But the ex-priest faces two more criminal trials in other counties and at least 86 pending civil lawsuits.

Additionally, 118 people have sued Bernard Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston, who employed what is widely characterized as the "geographic cure" when he transferred Geoghan from parish to parish--despite warnings about the priest's questionable behavior.

Prosecutors plan to depose Law in the case, a rare event for a Roman Catholic archbishop in the U.S. It's unclear whether the prelate will take the stand, but his testimony is expected to offer an unusual portrait of how the church has handled a difficult problem that in recent years had generated increasing attention. Pedophilia in the church had, for years, been kept quiet, but recent lawsuits and public accusations have forced church officials to confront the issue.

Already, the case has prompted a series of public apologies from Law, who, on Sunday, while saying Mass, asked for prayers "for those who bear the pain of these acts." Law also asked for prayers for himself as he struggles with a problem the church long sought to deny.

The numerous lawsuits against Geoghan, an area priest for more than 30 years, also caused church officials here to issue a new policy requiring the reporting of abuse.

Under the policy, which Law announced last week, clergy, employees and volunteers in the Boston archdiocese will be subjected to the same state statute that requires teachers, social service workers and others to report suspected child abuse. Information obtained during confession will be exempt.

In a painstaking attempt to guarantee a balanced jury, Superior Court Judge Sandra L. Hamilton on Monday interviewed more than 60 prospective jurors. One man who was rejected as a juror told Hamilton: "This [case] is just shattering my faith in the priesthood."

The case has received widespread publicity locally, including a disclosure by the Boston Globe this week that Geoghan divested himself of real estate worth more than $750,000 by transferring the land to his sister. Then, claiming poverty, he received a court-appointed attorney.

In the current case, Geoghan faces just one count of indecent assault and battery on a person under the age of 14. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison.

The abuse allegedly took place at a swim club in nearby Waltham, west of Boston, where Geoghan was a priest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Geoghan often urged parents to send their sons to the club, the indictment in the case states. Sometimes, the indictment continued, Geoghan recruited altar boys for his church at the swim club.

Charges of rape of a child under 16 in a criminal trial set to begin next month could put Geoghan behind bars for the rest of his life if he is found guilty. That case also involves a swimming pool and a locker room.

The date for a third criminal trial involving two more counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 has not been set.

In all, more than 130 people at a series of Boston-area parishes have come forward to charge Geoghan with molesting them when they were as young as 4. Statutes of limitation prevent criminal prosecution in most of those cases.

Church officials have admitted that they received repeated reports about Geoghan's alleged activities. Though he underwent counseling and psychiatric evaluation, Geoghan merely was transferred when suspicions grew too strong, church officials have said.

In 1995, he was removed from his duties as a priest.

At a news conference last week, Law admitted that the way the matter was handled was "in retrospect, tragically incorrect."

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