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Cardinal Testifies He Knew of Abuse by Priest in '84

May 9, 2002 | Los Angeles Times

Cardinal Bernard Law testified Wednesday that he knew as early as 1984 that John J. Geoghan, then a priest in the Boston Archdiocese, was having sexual encounters with young boys.

"I was aware that there was involvement because ... of having removed him out of one parish and putting him between assignments before sending him back to another," Law said in an extraordinary daylong deposition at Suffolk County courthouse.

Testifying in a civil lawsuit brought by 86 alleged victims, Law conceded that he recognized his signature on an attachment to a 1984 letter from a woman who said Geoghan had abused her sons and nephews. But again and again Wednesday, the cardinal said that he had no recollection of the actual letter from Marge Gallant.

"I found that to be absolutely amazing," said Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney for the 86 alleged Geoghan victims.

"He didn't recall the letter even though the envelope said: 'Urgent,'" Garabedian said after Wednesday's questioning concluded. "He just didn't recall Marge Gallant stating that her children were being abused."

It was Garabedian who forced the unusual interrogation of the nation's senior Roman Catholic prelate. After the Boston Archdiocese pulled out of a $15-million to $30-million settlement with his clients last week, Garabedian demanded an immediate opportunity to depose the cardinal.

Law, who on at least four other occasions has failed to appear for scheduled depositions, arrived by police escort Wednesday in a silver limousine with darkened windows. A small crowd waited outside the courthouse in the city's financial district, some carrying protest signs aimed at the cardinal.

Diocesan lawyer Wilson D. Rogers Jr., one of several attorneys who accompanied Law on Wednesday, declined to comment on the day's proceedings.

In his black suit and clerical collar, Law looked grim as he entered the courtroom. The cardinal has rebuffed calls for his resignation in the face of a clerical sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and around the world.

The crisis erupted in January when the Boston Globe published documents showing that church officials knew of Geoghan's long pattern of molesting children. Rather than removing him from the priesthood, the records revealed, church leaders simply placed Geoghan in new parishes--where he continued to work with children.

Geoghan was convicted in January of a single count of child molestation. He is serving a nine- to 10-year prison sentence.

The scandal escalated in April when other records were made public, showing that the church also had protected Father Paul Shanley, an alleged pedophile. Shanley, arrested last week in San Diego, was arraigned here Monday on three counts of child rape.

Since January, the Boston Archdiocese has provided prosecutors with the names of close to 100 priests accused of sexual abuse over a 40-year period. More than 200 priests in the U.S. have resigned or been suspended since the scandal surfaced.

More than 150 people have accused Geoghan of molesting them over a 30-year period in a series of Boston-area parishes. Garabedian spent 111/2 months crafting a settlement for 86 of those people, who agreed to negotiate as a group.

Under terms set by Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, one of the alleged victims was permitted to attend Wednesday's deposition of the cardinal.

"I found that the cardinal had some selective amnesia," 33-year-old Mark Keane said. "He rattled off the names of streets where he lived many years ago. But he could not remember receiving a draft of a letter about Father Geoghan molesting young boys. I find that hard to believe."

The deposition was closed to the public. A videotape was made for possible use at trial if Law were not available.

A transcript of the day's testimony showed that the hearing began with an objection from Rogers, who called "the inquiry into the inner workings of the church" inappropriate.

Much of the ensuing testimony focused on what Law knew about Geoghan--and when.

Law became bishop of Boston, the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese, in 1984. Although he said he did not recall reading warning letters about Geoghan, Law did say that doctors told him the priest was not a threat. Law also said he relied on advice from subordinates.

"I'm sure that medical assurance was given," Law said. "Whether it was subsequently put in writing and in an earlier form given orally, I cannot say."

But referring to correspondence about one of Geoghan's reassignments, the cardinal said: "I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that this letter would never have been put before me for a signature had we not had the assurance of someone competent ... that this assignment was safe."

Law also did not remember reading a letter from Bishop John d'Arcy, his own secretary, who cautioned that Geoghan should not be reassigned.

In fact, Garabedian said after the session ended, "he didn't recall a whole lot about Father Geoghan."

However, the cardinal acknowledged under oath that he recognized pedophilia as both a sin and a serious problem.

"I viewed this as a pathology, as a psychological pathology, as an illness," he said. "Obviously I viewed it as something that had a moral component. It was, objectively speaking, a gravely sinful act."

Wednesday's deposition also probed into the workings of the cardinal's finance council, a group of advisors from Boston's business community. The cardinal said at Mass on Sunday that the council had overruled him in voting to back out of the multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlement.

The cardinal said that he had been informed that several of the 86 alleged victims had suicidal tendencies. "He said he knew this bad news had hurt them," Garabedian said.

The day's testimony also revealed that Law is simultaneously a citizen of the United States, Vatican City and possibly Mexico, where he was born.

His status as a Vatican citizen means he could be protected there if he were to leave the United States.

Since today is a holy day of obligation, Ascension Thursday, Law asked to be excused from continuing the deposition until Friday. Sweeney agreed to extend the deposition at least until Monday, as well. Future sessions will be held at the chancery.

Keane, who said he made eye contact with the cardinal about 10 minutes into the deposition, said at first he found it intimidating to be seated opposite the man who oversaw his alleged abuser.

But Law, Keane said, "came off very soft-spoken. He's a good talker."

Still, Keane said he was skeptical. "Not to compare him to Father Geoghan, but I have experienced a soft-spoken, good talker before, and look where it got me."

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