Special Reports

Jan. 24, 2002

Letters exhibit gentle approach toward priest

Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s letters portrayed Geoghan as dogged by unpleasant circumstances beyond his control.
Michael DwyerAP/File
Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s letters portrayed Geoghan as dogged by unpleasant circumstances beyond his control.

They are patient and reassuring in tone, always forgiving, often loving. Their salutations are familiar, even chummy, sometimes addressed to Father John or simply Jack. Not one mentions the scores of victims or their families.

Three decades of previously secret correspondence between defrocked priest John J. Geoghan and the two cardinals he served - Humberto S. Medeiros and Bernard F. Law - make clear that Geoghan was treated with unfailing delicacy by his superiors, whose letters portray him as dogged by unpleasant circumstances beyond his control.

So kindly and solicitous were Law’s letters that when Geoghan twice asked Law to appoint him pastor of St. Julia Parish in Weston - the same parish where he had previously been forced to go on sick leave after new molestation complaints surfaced - Law twice told Geoghan he would consider the request and forward his name to personnel officials.


“I feel that I am qualified,” Geoghan wrote in a letter dated June 29, 1990, seven months after returning from a treatment center for sexually abusive priests. “I know the people, the parish, and its problems. I am confident that I can build a vibrant Faith community.”

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Even when one of Law’s subordinates notified Geoghan that he had not been selected to be pastor in Weston, he encouraged Geoghan to pursue other parish positions.

“It is important that you not interpret this appointment by the Cardinal in any negative way with reference to yourself,” the Rev. Kevin J. Deeley, associate director of the Clergy Personnel Office, wrote to Geoghan in May 1992, at a time when Geoghan had allegedly fondled or raped more than 100 children in a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.

Added Deeley: “Please feel free to write or call expressing interest in any other parish for which you feel an interest in the future.”

Court documents made public this week also reveal that many of the letters notifying Geoghan that he was being transferred from one parish to another - reassignments prompted by new abuse allegations - are nearly identical copies, containing the same boiler plate language used in earlier letters.


“I am confident that you will render fine priestly service to the People of God in St. Andrew parish,” Medeiros wrote on May 30, 1974, in a letter notifying Geoghan that he was being removed from St. Paul Parish in Hingham, where he had allegedly abused at least three victims, and being reassigned to St. Andrew Parish in Forest Hills.

Seven years later, on Feb. 13, 1981, Medeiros sent a nearly verbatim letter informing Geoghan that he was being reassigned to a parish in Dorchester after a yearlong sick leave. “I am confident that you will render fine priestly service to the People of God in St. Brendan parish,” Medeiros wrote.

And three years after that, during his first year as archbishop of Boston, Law had this to say in an Oct. 31, 1984, letter assigning Geoghan to Weston: “I am confident that you will render fine priestly service to the People of God in St. Julia parish.”

Geoghan’s replies were equally gracious.

In one hand-written letter to Medeiros, addressed “Your Eminence” and dated Nov. 2, 1980, Geoghan reported: “I have been receiving excellent care on direction from two wonderful Catholic physicians, Dr. John Brennan and Dr. Robert Mullins. They assure me that within a relatively short time I shall be able to return for fruitful years of priestly ministry. I am eager to return and I thank God for his many blessings.”


The Spotlight Team reported last week that Brennan was charged in a civil lawsuit with sexually molesting one of his patients, who received $100,000 to settle the suit, and that Mullins is a general practitioner with no experience in psychiatry or psychology.

Letters to Geoghan from Law, who has publicly acknowledged that he moved Geoghan to Weston despite being aware of his history of abuse, are no less solicitous.

“It is most heartening to know that things have gone well for you and that you are ready to resume your efforts with a renewed zeal and enthusiasm,” Law wrote on Nov. 13, 1989, after reassigning Geoghan to St. Julia Parish. “With my warmest personal regards and my blessing upon you and all whom you serve so well, I remain sincerely yours in Christ.”

Five days later, Geoghan replied: “Your Eminence, I wish to thank you for the warmth of your letter and your kindness in re assigning me to Saint Julia Parish, Weston. . . . It is good to be back and I received an enthusiastic welcome from many parishioners. . . . I will always be grateful to you.”

Even in his Dec. 30, 1994, letter placing Geoghan on administrative leave after new allegations surfaced, Law included these gentle words: “I realize this is a difficult time for you and for those close to you. If I can be of help to you in some way please contact me. Be assured you are remembered in my prayers.”

It was only after the Rev. Brian M. Flatley, an archdiocesan official responsible for handling clergy sexual-abuse complaints, described Geoghan as a “real danger” and urged Law in a June 4, 1996, memo to be “firm” with the priest, that the tenor of Law’s correspondence changed.

The day after receiving Flatley’s memo, Law warned Geoghan in a letter that if he did not seek treatment, “it will be necessary for me to invoke canonical penalties.”

But Law still included a fond signoff, writing: “These are difficult matters, John. You are in my thoughts and prayers.”