Judge Rules It Was Too Late to Charge Priest With Rapes

March 8, 2002


New York Times

BOSTON, March 7 - The most serious criminal charges against
a priest who is accused of molesting nearly 200 children
over three decades were thrown out today by a judge who
said too much time had elapsed since the accuser first
reported the incidents.

The defrocked priest, John J. Geoghan, 66, was charged with
two counts of raping a child. The authorities said he
molested the child, a boy, from 1980 to 1984, while taking
him out for ice cream, taking him swimming, showering with
him, visiting him in his bedroom at bedtime, holding him on
his lap in the driver's seat of a car and even while
visiting Mr. Geoghan's mother's house.

Mr. Geoghan's lawyer, Geoffrey Packard, had argued that the
10-year statute of limitations for child rape had expired
by the time Mr. Geoghan was indicted by a grand jury in
1999. Prosecutors had argued that while the accuser
reported sexual abuse by Mr. Geoghan earlier, he reported
the rape accusations three years later. Using that later
report as the starting date for the statute of limitations,
they argued, meant the case fell within the 10-year limit.

Judge Margaret Hinkle of Suffolk Superior Court said in
her ruling that the prosecution had not proved beyond a
reasonable doubt that the rape accusations had been
reported within the statute of limitations.

She said that statute was intended to be "strictly
construed against" prosecutors and "liberally interpreted
in favor" of a defendant.

Mr. Geoghan's case has ignited a scandal over pedophile
priests in the Boston archdiocese and other dioceses around
the country. Documents released in 84 civil suits filed
against Mr. Geoghan and the archdiocese showed that church
officials, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law, shuffled Mr.
Geoghan from parish to parish though they knew about his
admitted pedophile past.

The cardinal has publicly apologized twice, and the
archdiocese has given prosecutors the names of nearly 90
priests accused of sexually abusing children. Ten of those
priests were in active ministry and have been suspended.

Mr. Geoghan was convicted last month of indecent assault
and battery for fondling a 10-year-old boy in a pool, and
he was sentenced to 9 to 10 years in prison. He faces
another trial, as yet unscheduled, on similar charges of
assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

Today's decision demonstrates the difficulties prosecutors
face with child abuse cases in which accusations are
reported too late or it takes years for accusers to agree
to go through a trial. Prosecutors have said it may be
difficult to prosecute many of the 90 priests whose names
they have received because of the statute of limitations.

In this case, the accuser first told his mother in February
1986 that Mr. Geoghan had molested him. The boy, then 11,
also told a psychologist he was seeing because he had
become suicidal, was having trouble in school and had been
found molesting his 9- year-old brother.

Mr. Packard argued that the 10- year clock should start
then. But prosecutors and the accuser's mother said the
accuser reported only that Mr. Geoghan had fondled him in
1986, and did not report that he had raped him until 1989,
which would make the 1999 indictment legal.

Prosecutors said that even if the judge found that the
clock started in 1986, it should not start until May,
because the clock stops when a defendant moves out of
state, and Mr. Geoghan was out of state for several months
receiving treatment for pedophilia. If the clock started in
May 1986, the case would have been covered by a law passed
in May 1996 that extended the statute of limitations to 15
years, giving prosecutors until 2001 to get an indictment.

Prosecutors were not able to seek an indictment before
1999 because the accuser's mother would not allow her son
to testify in court.

The prosecution's case was also complicated by the fact
that the accuser, now a 27-year-old mechanic in Quincy and
a father of two sons, testified that he told his mother
about the rapes in 1986, not in 1989. Prosecutors could not
bolster their arguments from police records, because the
original 1986 police report could not be found.

"This is the result you can get," said Mitchell Garabedian,
a lawyer for scores of people who claim that Mr. Geoghan
molested them, including the accuser. "Time elapses, cases
get dismissed, prosecutions do not take place. The victim,
in essence, is revictimized."

A spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney said
prosecutors had not decided whether to appeal.

Mr. Geoghan's lawyer, Mr. Packard, said he had spoken with
his client's sister, Catherine, who said, "This was the
only good news that we've had in a long time."

The archdiocese has settled about 100 lawsuits against Mr.
Geoghan for $15 million, including one filed by the accuser
in the case thrown out today, and is close to settling 84
other suits for $20 million to $30 million.