Souls, Safety and The Death of John Geoghan

The prison murder of John Geoghan marked a grisly end to a sordid tale.

Yet in his death, Catholics finally began to speak the language they should have been speaking about the scandal of priestly sexual abuse.

One of Geoghan's victims said that while his murder meant he would never harm another child, it cut short the time available for Geoghan to do penance for his sins. It was reported that several Masses were offered in Boston parishes for the repose of his soul.

It was good to hear Geoghan's case being discussed sub specie aeternitatis, as the expression goes, “under the guise of eternity.” It is supposed to be the way the Church looks at things.

I first heard the name of John Geoghan in late 2001, as the defrocked priest's trial on sexual abuse charges was proceeding. The documents uncovered by that trial sparked the great sexual abuse crisis that would eventually topple Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law and shake the Catholic Church in the United States.

I was in Rome, living with American priests and seminarians, and we prayed for the wounded Church in Boston, for the victims of sexual abuse and for those of our brother clergymen who had committed the crimes.

I remember one of my classmates saying that he felt guilty praying for the perpetrators, as though somehow it constituted a private insult to the victims. He knew enough, though, to persevere in those prayers, for as St. Paul teaches, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

In death, we seem to have less difficulty praying for the souls of even very wicked men. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once referred to Geoghan as “a moral monster.” So he was, and if God's mercy has spared him final condemnation in hell, Catholics pray he may complete the great penance required of him in purgatory.

Yet we should not have to wait for death to speak about salvation. For too long, Geoghan was moved around because his superiors were said to be blind to the gravity of the situation. It was said that pedophilia was not well understood from a clinical point of view, and the lasting psychological damage to victims was not well known. Perhaps.

But it should have been enough to know that such a betrayal of trust would undoubtedly damage the faith of the victims in God, in the Church and in the priesthood. Long before the criminal law was considered, it should have been enough to remove Geoghan because of the damage he was doing to the faith of his victims, their families and all other faithful Catholics who would later be scandalized.

You don't need psychological studies to know that a priest who sins gravely and leads others into sin is not a priest who should continue in ministry.

From Geoghan's own perspective, the grave sins he was committing posed a danger to his soul. A firm but loving superior should have removed Geoghan, for his own good, from situations of temptation and encouraged him to do penance. A bishop must care for all the souls entrusted to his care; sometimes that care is best expressed in discipline ordered to repentance.

The American bishops, following Geoghan's and others' scandals, have taken measures to ensure that there will never again be another John Geoghan. Now, in a policy more strict than in any other sector of society, a credible accusation (not criminal conviction) means the end of a priest's days in the parish.

Fair enough for the safety of children. But what about salvation? Despite whatever public relations slogans might be adopted, the safety of children is not the No. 1 priority of the Church — the Church exists for the salvation of souls. After the criminal, civil and public safety aspects have been addressed, is there enough interest and energy to worry about questions of faith and salvation? The victims need to have their trust restored, not for the good of the Church but for the good of their own souls, for without trust in God it is impossible to grow in the ways of holiness.

The dismissed priests need conversions of heart, too, preparing themselves to receive God's mercy through penance and repentance. They will not return to active service as priests, but they are not beyond the Church's concern, for nobody is beyond salvation.

Perhaps it took the all-too-secular means of investigative reporting and lawsuits to remind the Church that she had failed in the world precisely because she had failed to see the world through the prism of the Gospel.

The murder of John Geoghan was the last episode in a life all too deeply marked by sin and in desperate need of salvation. So we pray for the soul of John Geoghan, for the healing of his victims and yes, for the conversion of the man who killed him.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the Register's former Rome correspondent.