Preying On The Predator

During his 36 years as a Roman Catholic priest, serial pedophile John Geoghan preyed upon the most vulnerable members of his flock: poor boys from broken homes. But during the last moments of his life in a maximum-security Massachusetts prison, Geoghan received a harsh lesson in what it's like to be the weakest guy on the block. According to new details of the killing that emerged last week, Geoghan's alleged assailant, convicted murderer Joseph Druce, had been plotting the attack for a month. He sneaked into Geoghan's cell after lunch on Aug. 23 and jammed the door shut with a paperback book. Druce bound and gagged the former priest with a T shirt, then used a pre-stretched sock and a shoe to crank a garrote around Geoghan's neck, strangling him. For good measure, Druce repeatedly jumped off the bed to stomp on the dying man. As a 15-man response team struggled to open the cell, one inmate recalled to a lawyer, Druce taunted them: "Don't bother to hurry--he's already dead." Indeed, when guards finally got in, Geoghan's face "looked like the guts you pull out of a fish," says a corrections source. One guard tried performing CPR, but Geoghan's innards were so pulverized "it was like doing chest compressions on a concrete floor."

Prison killings are a staple of TV crime shows, and as victims go, a child rapist is hardly a sympathetic figure. But the gruesome details of Geoghan's killing--and the seemingly common-sense measures that might have prevented it--have transfixed the public and energized prison-reform advocates. The Geoghan case is unfolding against a backdrop of nationwide prison budget cuts that even some wardens admit are making prisons more dangerous than they should be. As prison staffing levels have dropped, inmate violence has risen: in 2000-2001 there were 42,000 reported inmate-on-inmate assaults, up about 4 percent from the year before. Geoghan's case is also drawing special scrutiny to the systems states use to decide where to assign inmates and how much protection they're afforded. While some observers aren't surprised Geoghan--a frail pedophile and obvious target--was killed, most are appalled that he was housed within easy reach of Druce, a violent neo-Nazi and a clear threat. "Prisons ought to be places where people can live out their sentences--priests or not," the Most Rev. Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, told NEWSWEEK.

Geoghan's troubles in prison began long before the afternoon of his death. Last summer lawyers at Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services began hearing complaints from inmates at the Concord prison where Geoghan was being held that guards were abusing him. Later the former priest asked for help directly. The group's lawyers say guards nicknamed Geoghan "Lucifer," spit in his food and posted newspaper clippings so other inmates could read about his crimes. One guard allegedly defecated in Geoghan's bed. The guards also repeatedly wrote Geoghan up for minor infractions, like acting "insolent."

Owing largely to those write-ups, Geoghan was transferred this spring to a "super-max" prison in Shirley, Mass. When attorney Leslie Walker visited Geoghan there in April, prison life had taken a toll: he was pallid, stooped and appeared 80 years old, she says (he was then 67). But he seemed relieved to be away from the Concord guards and in a private cell where he could pray in peace. "He was feeling safe there," Walker says. When allowed out of his cell, he played cards with other inmates. Whether Geoghan realized the dangers he faced is unclear, but one inmate told lawyers that a day before his death, Geoghan said he was scared of Druce and had told prison officials. (The Massachusetts Department of Corrections declined to comment pending an investigation.)

One union official speculated that understaffing might have contributed to Geoghan's death. But most observers are focused on the classification system that placed Geoghan among such violent inmates. As a notorious pedophile, Geoghan was held in a protective-custody unit (PCU), a small, segregated section of the prison reserved for snitches, celebrities and other inmates likely to be harmed. But while some states have developed sophisticated systems to separate natural enemies--like members of the rival Crips and Bloods gangs--Massachusetts hasn't. So no one recognized that Druce, who was reportedly molested as a child and brutally strangled an apparently gay man in 1988 to earn his life sentence, posed a threat. Even if someone had realized the danger, there was no easy solution: Massachusetts has just two PCUs, the one in Concord where Geoghan felt abused by guards and the one where he died. Some argue the state needs more.

Since prosecutors say Druce has already confessed to the killing and he's already serving a life sentence, he's unlikely to provide a Court TV-worthy trial. Indeed, the most immediate impact of Geoghan's killing could fall on other priests in jail or awaiting trial. Massachusetts has at least four sex-offender priests behind bars, and last week several were transferred to PCUs. But convicted priest Kelvin Iguabita quickly asked to be put back in the general population. "He says 'God will protect me'," says his attorney, Martin Leppo. Meanwhile, other lawyers speculated whether Geoghan's death might sway future sex-abuse juries. If jurors fear convicting an accused priest will put his life in danger, will it influence their verdict? Opinions are mixed.

Even as his sister buried Geoghan last week, observers speculated whether the priest might star in a final, posthumous trial. Attorneys say his family has solid grounds for a wrongful-death suit, though the monetary damages might be small. But the larger reaction to his death could be system wide changes. Last week Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appointed a special panel to investigate the death; it will examine not just the killing, but prison staffing levels, the state's classification system and other potential causes. If the Geoghan case does lead to significant prison reform, it will add to the strange legacies of a very troubled man. In life, Geoghan caused immeasurable suffering, but his actions called national attention to festering problems in the Catholic Church. If Geoghan's brutal death helps bring about safer conditions inside America's prisons, it will provide yet more evidence that God truly does work in mysterious ways.