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The Tragedy of John Geoghan
By John Mallon
It was just one year ago, August 23, 2003, that the priest at the center of the sex-abuse scandals was murdered in his Massachusetts jail cell.
The tragedy of John Geoghan has become the tragedy of the Catholic Church in our time. John Geoghan, from all appearances, was a little pixie of a man, an appearance which hid the appetites of a monster.
Apart from the actual molestations, what was so horrifying in his actions was the terrorizing of children. There was one report where a child broke free of his grasp and fled through a rectory while Geoghan is said to have shouted after him "No one will believe you!" dooming the child to a terrible isolation in his fear. In this action Geoghan became an anti-priest, doing the precise inverse of what a priest is called to do: release people from terror and darkness into the light of Christ.
That is why there was a chilling irony for so many on hearing of his death. One imagines he experienced the kind of terror his victims experienced during his last moments.
It is all the more chilling in that, to my knowledge, he never expressed any public acknowledgment that he ever did anything wrong. Did he believe his actions with children were harmless and merely exaggerated by the media? Did he see himself as the victim? As a Catholic I wonder and hope that at least he came clean in a sacramental confession to God before his death. But as a Catholic I also know that I don't have to know that, it's enough that he, God and his confessor know that, and he and his confessor can't tell us.
As a Catholic journalist I hoped a day would come when I could interview him, just as many of his victims hope to confront him to see if there was any sign of knowledge of what he did or true contrition.
Then-Father Geoghan was my parish priest when I was a child. Thankfully he never approached me but some of my friends and classmates weren't so lucky. I only found this out recently. The last time I was in the parish school for a visit, (over 10 years ago) there was a black & white portrait of him hanging across from the principal's office, the gift of some eighth grade graduating class. I suspect it has since been removed. I remember feeling a kind of disgust when I saw it. I do have one vivid memory of him that initially clued me in that he had a problem.
The year was 1966. If my memory is correct it was the day of my confirmation. I was standing just outside the church with my best friend, another confimandi, and his 7 or 8 year-old brother. The ever-grinning diminutive, pixieish priest was bent over his little brother from behind tickling the boy's lower abdomen. It didn't strike me as odd, until my friend turned to me and stated, matter-of-factly, "My little bother doesn't like Father Geoghan."
I said, "Why not?"
"Weird stuff. You know. Touching and stuff."
I understood. At fourteen-years-old I understood. I didn't know what it meant or what the ramifications were, but I got the picture. In those days people didn't listen to children or believe them, and this allowed certain very dysfunctional people access to children under Catholic auspices. I did not escape entirely. I had to be removed from that Catholic school having been traumatized by the Dickensian behaviors and arbitrary punishments meted out by some of the nuns there. Thankfully my mother listened to me—or at least to my terror.
But I think about that moment with Geoghan a lot. I imagine going back in time as an adult to that moment and saying "Look. If you don't cut this out, you are going to lose your priesthood, be the center of the greatest scandal to ever hit the Catholic Church in modern times, and die in prison with a murderer at your throat."
I wonder if he would have listened. I wonder if someone did speak to him like that. Sexual compulsion is a brutal thing to overcome but with spiritual means it is possible, but you have to recognize it is evil and want to overcome it.
The irony—or miracle—for me is that after a turbulent youth I found out by the grace of God that these tragic people were not the true face of the Catholic Church, but that the face of Christ is the true face of the Catholic Church. In a process of conversion I was awed by the supernatural beauty of the Church not always so vivid to the eye. This conversion included being awed by the beauty of the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially the most controversial ones, so much so that I entered the field of theology and as a layman dedicated my life to them.
Yes, the teachings that critics say, "must change."
No, they must not.
In fact, most of them cannot.
Few of these teachings make sense viewed through secular eyes, but this is where St. Paul says, "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind..." and exhorts us to have a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. (Rom. 12:2) and again, Paul says, ... the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God... (1 Cor. 3:19) St. Augustine spoke of this as "the City of God vs. the City of Man." The Gospels make constant references to being of "this world" or "of the Spirit." This is what Christianity is, and Catholicism especially, a lifelong conversion from one realm to the other.
The Obedience of Faith spoken of in Vatican II is a matter of some spiritual maturity, although it comes naturally to children, which is why Christ held up a child as the model of spiritual maturity ("Unless you become like little children..."). The key is love of Christ ("If you love me you will keep my Commandments"). A man who loves his wife is faithful to her because he loves her not because the rules say he has to be faithful.
The jaws of death continue to snap at the Body of Christ, the Church, but Catholics have it on the highest authority that they will not prevail. There are many voices demanding the Church "change," but there is only one change necessary; and that is that through conversion the Church will become more truly Who She Is as the Spotless Bride of Christ. She is mud-splashed—and blood splashed—by sin now, and we see her through a glass darkly.
What many mean when they speak of "change" in the Church involves throwing the baby out with the baptismal water. There has been too much abuse, and Church teachings have been abused, misunderstood and misapplied from all sides for too long; but as Catholics say, "Abusus non tollit usum" The abuse does not remove the use. There is redemption, restoration. I pray John Geoghan has found it, that his victims find it, that heartbroken (or gleeful) critics of the Church realize it and the Church more fully appropriates it.
Mallon is Contributing Editor of Inside the Vatican