Boston -- In the annals of clerical sexual abuse, the January conviction of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan on a single charge of fondling a boy was relatively minor. And yet the case has triggered concern and anger across the country.
Fueled by media scrutiny and victims stepping forward, a scandal over pedophilia in the priesthood is spreading through the Roman Catholic Church. The crisis is gathering momentum each day and causing fear in the church that its ancient wall of secrecy may tumble down.
As never before, the Geoghan case documented that church officials knew all along that child molesters were at work in the priesthood. The outrage "is at tidal wave proportions," said San Diego psychiatrist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and an expert on sexuality in the church. ". . . It is going to hit every major diocese in the country. And it is not going to stop there. It is going to be worldwide."
Since January, the Boston archdiocese has given prosecutors the names of close to 90 priests suspected of child abuse over 40 years. At least 84 other priests in 11 states also have been accused this year of sexual misconduct with children. Of those, 21 have been removed from active duty. In Southern California alone, as many as a dozen priests have been ordered to retire.
Lawyers for clerical sexual abuse victims say their phones have been jammed as the scandal spreads daily: to Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, New Hampshire--not to mention Ireland, England and Spain. As late as Friday, a bishop in Palm Beach, Fla., resigned after admitting he molested a teenager 25 years ago.
"Look what this has done," said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 118 Geoghan victims. "There is a wide effect to all of this, a very long-lasting effect."
The potential damage to the church is enormous, from loss of faith to vast financial settlements. Some Catholics say they are tired of hypocrisy in their hierarchy; some dioceses say their insurance companies have bailed out and they are running out of cash. In 20 years, it has been estimated that the church already has paid out between $600 million and $1.3 billion to sexual abuse victims.
When it comes to paying victims, the Vatican says each diocese is on its own. "It's up to each individual bishop to draw up his guidelines, implement them and pay the bills," according to a U.S. priest who has worked in the Vatican.
Last year, the Vatican quietly classified sexual abuse of minors by priests as one of several "graver offenses" against church law.
Then, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone of Rome made a rare acknowledgment in a January address on Vatican Radio:
"There have emerged some cases of gravely illicit behavior on the part of ordained ministers. We know these cases are given emphasis by the media . . . and therefore provoke more scandal than in the past, when information about this kind of behavior was considered confidential. Therefore, the problem of scandal is a problem that worries the church."
In Boston, the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese, spokesman Father Christopher Coyne admitted late last week that the fast, far-reaching spread of the crisis caught church officials by surprise.
"I don't think anybody realized the extent of the problem, not just here in Boston but in the United States," he said. "Before, we could just say that each case was an isolated incident."
Money from the church is no longer enough to silence the waves of victims who are coming forward. Confidentiality agreements have fallen by the wayside, as victims learned that, instead of being thrown out of the church, their abusers often were reassigned--in effect given tacit permission to repeat their behavior.
Faulting the Vatican's "moral passivity" on the issue, Jason Berry, author of a best-seller about clerical pedophilia called "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," said: "What you are left with is an American hierarchy riddled with sexual secrecy that is now having to confront a long legal policy of trying to secure silence with money. This is not the final stage of the scandal, it is the early midpoint of a crisis."
Tom Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter--an independent, liberal Catholic newspaper--likened the problem to a sea monster whose head just keeps popping up every day, somewhere else.
"It is hard to know how involved the Vatican is, but it is involved by being aloof from the practical responses that are required in crises like this," said Fox. "There seems to be an attitude in Rome that this too shall pass."
Sexual abuse in the church went largely ignored until 1984, when Father Gilbert Gauthe was charged with raping scores of boys in a Louisiana parish.
The next year, a canon lawyer then working for the Vatican Embassy in Washington drafted an internal report about pedophilia in the priesthood called "The Manual." It warned of a growing problem that could escalate if the church failed to establish a national policy.
The 100-page document later served as evidence against the church in a series of sexual abuse lawsuits.
In all 50 states in 1984, the failure to report child sexual abuse was a felony. But 22 states--among them Massachusetts--exempted clergy. Cardinal Bernard F. Law was first informed of Geoghan's alleged abuse in 1984.
By 1985, the National Catholic Reporter was writing about millions of dollars in settlements to families of children molested by priests. Noting that the problem exacerbated "old suspicions against the Catholic Church and a celibate clergy," the journal also railed against a national leadership that had no protocol for the problem.
Quietly, local bishops continued to deal with child molestation charges by insisting on confidentiality clauses in settlements that ranged from a few thousand dollars to millions.
Then came the 1992 trial of Father James Porter in the archdiocese of Fall River, Mass. In a case that received international attention, more than 75 adult men and women accused Porter of molesting them as children. But because of statutes of limitations, which vary from state to state, he was convicted of abusing 28 children and sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.
The Porter trial was rife with shocking details, and if any case should have enraged the public, "Porter should have done it," said Roderick MacLeish Jr., the lawyer who represented most of Porter's victims. "But people were not prepared to accept it."
The church worked hard to portray Porter as an aberration, "and still after Porter, people thought that was the exception, not the rule," said MacLeish. In fact, "there were serial pedophiles in the archdiocese of Boston for so many years. Of course, there is no magic in the water here. It's everywhere."
The Geoghan case, said Sipe, opened the floodgates because "the system is now cracked open. The focus is no longer on this bad guy who did these bad things but the system in which he existed, which supported him and covered up for him and forgave him without assuring that he had reformed."
As a crucial consequence, said Sipe, "the code of secrecy is being broken."
Sipe, whose three books include "Sex, Priests and Power," said secrecy so deeply permeates church hierarchy that, upon ordination, a new cardinal promises never to reveal anything "which could cause damage or dishonor to the church."
Although Law has four times postponed a scheduled deposition in the Geoghan case, prosecutors were able to demonstrate that the now-defrocked priest's pattern of pedophilia was known to leaders in the diocese. When a Boston Globe investigative team won a court order in January to obtain copies of the documents, the lid came off for good.
The Boston area is more than 50% Catholic, "part of the East Coast media," an area where "the lights are white-hot and everything is picked up," said Fox, author of a book titled "Sexuality and Catholicism."
Families were enraged, he said, because "the documents reveal a total lack of compassion for the victim. The pattern here is treating these children as inanimate objects."
Disclosures of just how high the cover-up went also heightened the response, Fox said: "The cardinal is the senior Catholic prelate in the United States. So you can say, 'Where does the buck stop in this hierarchical structure?' "
At the Boston archdiocese, Coyne conceded, "what makes people crazy is the fact that we knew this guy [Geoghan] had done these things to children. By any common sense, we should have said, 'We can't put this guy back into a parish.' "
Many faithful Catholics feel betrayed, Coyne said. "You are dealing with an institution that is not supposed to be about this stuff. It's supposed to be about trust and spirituality."
But Patrick McSorley, a 27-year-old electrician, said he has little trust or spirituality left in his soul. The church was "a safe haven for pedophiles" when he was molested by Geoghan at age 12, he said.
"I won't be fully satisfied," he said, "until I know they're all gone."