A prominent American Jesuit recently named by Pope Francis to prosecute priests accused of sexually abusing minors under church law was himself one of several Catholic officials who allowed a notorious abusive priest to remain in ministry for years after learning of his long history of sexual abuses, legal documents show.
The Rev. Robert J. Geisinger, named in September as the Vatican’s “promoter of justice,’’ was the second-highest-ranking official among the Chicago Jesuits in the 1990s when leaders were facing multiple abuse complaints against the Rev. Donald J. McGuire, a globe-trotting priest with many influential supporters, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
But the Jesuits failed to notify police or take effective steps to prevent McGuire from continuing to molest minors.
Documents examined by the Globe, most of them church records produced during lawsuits filed by McGuire’s victims, show Geisinger had detailed knowledge of the complaints against McGuire as early as 1995 and advised officials in Chicago on how to discipline McGuire as late as August 2002.
McGuire was finally convicted in 2006 by a Wisconsin jury of molesting two boys who had notified civil authorities. He was also convicted on federal charges in 2008 and is serving a 25-year-prison sentence.
“It’s astonishing that, for such a high-profile, sensitive position, the Vatican wouldn’t want someone whose background is unassailable, in the sense that there shouldn’t even be questions raised,” Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, said of Geisinger. Lawler has been a prominent critic of the church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis.
Geisinger, reached at his Rome office, referred questions to the Vatican press office, which expressed confidence in his abilities, saying, “the Holy See fully expects Father Geisinger to continue to do an excellent job as promoter of justice, based on his prosecution record, his commitment to justice, and his concern for victims.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, said in a statement that Geisinger had “voiced concerns regarding McGuire’s conduct” while working with the Chicago Jesuits, and he credited Geisinger with presenting the case for McGuire’s expulsion from the priesthood in 2008. Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict acted on Geisinger’s request in less than two months.
Geisinger’s appointment — his full title is promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — was announced at the same time the Vatican also confirmed that Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley had been named president of an antiabuse advisory commission launched last year.
The appointments were seen by many as a sign Pope Francis is determined to come to grips with the continuing scandal of clergy sexual abuse, largely because of O’Malley’s record in taking extensive measures to prevent future clergy sexual abuse and the statements he has issued on the subject.
O’Malley underscored the new focus in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” a week ago, saying Pope Francis “is very committed to zero tolerance and responding in a proper way to this phenomenon of child abuse.”
O’Malley also addressed an issue that, to many victims and their advocates, raises questions about the church’s commitment to ending clergy sexual abuse: the failure of the Vatican to discipline a Kansas City bishop convicted in 2012 of failing to report suspected child abuse by a priest.
“It’s a question that the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley said.
Contacted by the Globe, O’Malley declined to answer questions about Geisinger’s failure, along with his Jesuit colleagues, to report McGuire to civil authorities. Spokesman Terrence Donilon referred questions to the Holy See.
Documents from the lawsuits filed by McGuire’s victims show Geisinger played a significant role in the Jesuits’ long, unsuccessful effort to prevent McGuire from continuing to befriend and travel with young teenagers — often sharing rooms with them — despite complaints dating to the 1960s.
One memo written to Geisinger in August of 2002, more than six months after the worldwide clergy abuse scandal erupted in Boston, mentions six complaints against McGuire and asks for Geisinger’s advice in taking disciplinary measures that would stop short of dismissing McGuire from the Jesuit order.
By that time, McGuire had ignored four warnings issued by Jesuit leaders and Geisinger had moved on to a position at Jesuit headquarters in Rome.
“Don can be quite belligerent and would likely want to hire canonical counsel to represent himself,” said the memo, written by the Rev. Richard H. McGurn, then the No. 2 official in the Chicago Province of Jesuits. “In other words, it seems better to give him a new assignment than to institute a process for dismissal.”
The memo to Geisinger was cited by an Illinois judge in a ruling that allowed McGuire’s victims to seek punitive damages in their lawsuit against the Chicago Jesuits. The memo, Judge Jeffrey Lawrence said, “acknowledged that McGuire had a long history of inappropriate behavior with teenage boys, that he had repeatedly violated guidelines set for him, and that he had not been properly monitored.”
In his 2002 response to the memo, Geisinger provided advice on how to restrict McGuire’s ministry to the Chicago Archdiocese and the steps necessary to remove him from ministry, in the event the Chicago Jesuits chose to take that step, but did not suggest reporting McGuire’s conduct to law enforcement officials.
Geisinger also made clear he had long known details of the accusations against McGuire, noting that he wrote a Feb. 17, 1995, letter to McGuire outlining complaints against him — including one from the mother of an alleged victim who “most vehemently requests that you have no further contact with her son.”
The letter was signed by Chicago’s top Jesuit, but Geisinger said he was the author.
In his brief interview, Geisinger also advised the Globe to contact the Chicago Province of Jesuits. But the spokesman for what is now the Chicago-Detroit Province did not return a telephone call or a detailed e-mail request for comment.Chica
Advocates for victims of clergy abuse have criticized Geisinger’s selection as chief enforcer of canon law because of his role in the McGuire case.
Catholic author Lawler said Geisinger’s apparent failure to recommend stronger action in the McGuire case before the proceedings to expel him from the priesthood raises questions about his fitness to prosecute sexually abusive priests.
“What I want to see in this role is someone who will plow through the institutional resistance to prosecution,” he said. “Somebody could make the case that Geisinger was only being a loyal adviser to those in positions of greater responsibility, but the case that you cannot make is that he was aggressive.”
Lawler and his wife, Leila, housed one of McGuire’s victims during the 1999-2000 school year when the victim was an eighth-grader at the Trivium School, a small Catholic school in Lancaster. Both complained about McGuire’s behavior during his visits with the boy, but neither the school nor the Chicago Province took action to stop him.
“The boy was not abused while he was here but he was abused after he left us, after we had communicated our fears to [McGuire’s] Jesuit superiors,’’ Lawler said in a 2012 Globe interview. “That makes me livid.”
Years later, the Lawlers’ boarder notified law enforcement authorities about multiple incidents of abuse by McGuire during trips to other states and other countries, which led to federal charges of traveling in interstate and foreign commerce for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a person under 18 — and led to McGuire’s 2008 criminal conviction.
One of Geisinger’s supervisors, the Rev. Bradley M. Schaeffer, the top Chicago Jesuit from 1991 to 1997, eventually apologized for his shortcomings in handling McGuire after a Globe story detailing the role he played.
“I deeply regret that my actions were not enough to prevent him from engaging in these horrific crimes,” Schaeffer said in a statement.
Geisinger was Schaeffer’s canon law adviser in Chicago.
Now, McGuire’s victims and advocates for survivors of clergy abuse are saying the Vatican should either explain or reconsider Geisinger’s appointment.
Said Terence McKiernan, founder of the advocacy group bishopaccountability.org: “Do you really want to pick someone who is actually in the paper trail of one of the most egregious cases that the Jesuits have ever handled?”
Michael Rezendes, a member of the Globe Spotlight Team, can be reached at michael.rezendes @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.