Judge's Ruling Frees Documents in Geoghan Case
By Kathleen Burge
November 30, 2001
Thousands of pages of private documents in the child molestation lawsuits filed against defrocked priest John J. Geoghan and his superiors - which could include pretrial testimony from church leaders - would be made public under a new order from a Suffolk Superior Court judge.
The ruling reverses a rare confidentiality order lawyers for the Archdiocese of Boston obtained from an earlier judge. That shield of secrecy had kept virtually all documents in the cases under seal and prohibited lawyers from discussing them. Even the parties in the cases couldn't see them without signing written statements swearing not to disclose anything they saw.
Acting on a request by The Boston Globe, Judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled last week that the documents should be opened because the high-profile case raises issues of intense public interest.
The confidentiality order, Sweeney noted, may have had the "unintended effect of impeding the access of the public and the press to certain aspects of the case."
The issues in the Geoghan case - charges of sexual abuse of minors by a priest who was repeatedly transferred - are clearly in the public interest, Sweeney wrote, noting that even the archdiocese and its newspaper have discussed those issues.
Lawyers for the archdiocese maintained the court had no jurisdiction to open the records. They insisted that, under the Constitutional separation of church and state, the relationships between Geoghan and his superiors should be overseen by the laws of the Catholic Church and not secular courts.
The archdiocese has said it will appeal Sweeney's ruling. Neither its lawyers nor a spokesman for the archdiocese could be reached for comment.
The ruling opens documents in 86 lawsuits filed by dozens of people who said Geoghan sexually abused them or members of their families during his three decades serving in several parishes around metropolitan Boston.
The alleged victims said Geoghan abused them while he was a priest from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. They say he found ways to win their trust and then sexually assaulted them.
Geoghan also faces separate criminal charges of sexually assaulting children in Suffolk and Middlesex counties.
The lawsuits also name about a dozen priests and church officials as defendants, including Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese's top official. The lawsuits charge Geoghan's superiors either knew or should have known he was abusing children, and did nothing to stop him.
Last summer, Law admitted in court papers that he received a letter in 1984 notifying him that Geoghan had molested boys. The following year, Geoghan was re assigned to another parish in Weston. Earlier this year, one of Law's lawyers, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., wrote in The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, that after the first allegations of sexual abuse, church officials moved Geoghan to other parishes, but only after the priest underwent an independant evaluation.
In her ruling, Sweeney ordered most of the discovery material - the mounds of information both sides gather as the civil cases proceed to trial - released within 30 days. That material will likely include sworn depositions from the alleged victims, witnesses, and Geoghan's supervisors, including several bishops.
In September 2000, Judge James McHugh granted the archdiocese's request and ruled that any party to the lawsuits could classify any discovery document as confidential. However, Sweeney noted that, under those guidelines, key documents would never "see the public light of day" if neither side objected. Sweeney inherited the case from McHugh this year after McHugh was appointed to the state Appeals Court.
Some of the information that could become public under Sweeney's order includes the psychological and counseling records of Geoghan's alleged victims. Sweeney wrote that the victims did not fight the Globe's request to see the records because they want the public to know how child sexual abuse affects its victims.
By contrast, the archdiocese has fought to keep the cases against Geoghan out of the courts and away from the public eye. Last year, it asked McHugh for a rare level of secrecy: withholding the fact Cardinal Law had been named as a defendant. McHugh rejected that request.
To block The Globe's request, the archdiocese argued the US Constitution allows it to operate under canon law, granting the power to regulate its internal affairs and discipline. That right would be breached by the state, the church maintained, if it is forced to make public discovery material that plumbs those internal affairs. "Thus, to allow The Globe to have access to pretrial discovery in these cases prior to a final resolution," the archdiocese argued, "would be highly prejudicial to the Constitutional protections afforded these Defendants under . . . the First Amendment."
Sweeney, however, wrote that even though church officials have some legal protections, canon law "does not automatically free them from the legal duties imposed on the rest of society" or protect them from liability and civil lawsuits.
When the process of discovery is finished, the judge continued, it will be easier to analyze the "delicate balance" between freedom of religion "and the requirements the law imposes upon members of society not to knowingly or carelessly allow appreciable harm to be visited upon children who have allegedly been entrusted to their care or oversight."
Kathleen Burge can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.