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.