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While the gruesome details that are surfacing about the slaying of defrocked priest John Geoghan require a full-fledged investigation, the societal reaction to his death deserves some attention, too.
Society has become painfully aware of the damage that child sexual abuse inflicts on victims. The scars of abuse are long lasting, impeding the development of adult relationships, leading some to drug abuse, a life of crime and, in some cases, even to suicide. These are all very real consequences of the actions of child molesters.
Our hearts are with the victims of John Geoghan, as with the victims of all child abuse.
But no matter how wretched the offense, every person is entitled to be treated fairly and justly— even when that person has been found guilty of a crime as heinous as child abuse.
An inmate, any inmate, in a correctional institution is still a human being, with a dignity that is not diminished by his actions. Civil rights may be restricted for prisoners, but they are not altogether wiped out. The justice system should protect an inmate from the kind of harassment that Geoghan endured, a harassment reportedly tolerated by the system, and that led to a death that should not have happened.
The fact that Geoghan was the quintessential priest child molester in a very heated media environment should have prompted a more careful approach to his custody. Though he was placed in protective custody, in the newest and most modern facility in the state, in the end all this was for naught.
Prison guards were reportedly made aware of threats against Geoghan’s life, and dismissed them; a neo-Nazi murderer, sentenced for killing a gay man, was allowed to be close to him. These facts show mismanagement in the prison system that must be investigated and corrected.
Gov. Romney is right in calling Geoghan’s death “a failure of government.” He must step up and show that those are not empty words, but the conviction that the penal system has to work in accordance with the law and not depending on the perceived value of the life of a particular prisoner.
Geoghan was a victim of a hate crime. His killer apparently targeted him because of the perceived, homosexual nature of Geoghan’s crimes. Geoghan’s notoriety, being portrayed as the poster child of the “pedophile priest,” may have also compounded to the hate that resulted in his death.
Not condemning Geoghan’s murder, or worse, applauding the so called “prison justice,” is irresponsible. Unfortunately many have either crossed that line or have become dangerously close to it in the last few days.
That attitude, while understandable as a first reaction from those most closely affected, needs to be denounced. In an environment in which some, sadly, think that every priest is a potential offender, allowing hate to stand may lead to further violence. Already priests in this archdiocese are frequently mocked and insulted. It is not uncommon to hear expletives shouted from cars when a priest in clerical attire walks down the street. Many already feel insecure and the potential target of hate crimes simply because they are priests.
Granted that Geoghan’s actions were heinous. Granted that the lives of many have been destroyed by his actions. But under no circumstances, should we rejoice in the death of another person.
Christ tells us to pray even for our enemies and not to judge. We can certainly not judge their final disposition before God. The Church does not keep a list of those who may be in hell.
As Geoghan’s death brings yet another dramatic twist to the scandal, we encourage our readers to pray for his soul, for his alleged killer, for his victims, and for the faithful priests who suffer, daily, the consequences of the actions of a few.