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The Catholic sex abuse cases are a series of lawsuits, criminal prosecutions and scandals related to sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests and members of religious orders, both under diocesan control and in orders which care for the sick or teach children,[1] that first rose to widespread public attention in the last two decades of the 20th century.[2] Although awareness of the widespread scope of these abuses first received significant media attention in Canada, Ireland and the United States, other cases were also reported in a number of other countries.

Beyond the actual abuses, much of the scandal focused around the actions of some members of the Catholic hierarchy who did not report the crimes to legal authorities and reassigned the offenders to other locations where they continued to have contact with minors, giving them the opportunity to continue their sexual abuse.[3][4][5][6] Some bishops and psychiatrists contended that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[5][7] In response to the widening scandal, Pope John Paul II declared that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[8] With the approval of the Vatican, the hierarchy of the church in the United States instituted reforms to prevent future abuse including requiring background checks for Church employees and volunteers and, noting the preponderance of adolescent males (teenage boys) amongst victims of abuse, warned that a more searching inquiry is necessary for a homosexually oriented man;[9][10] and the worldwide Church also prohibited the ordination of men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies".[7][11][12]

Some members of the church hierarchy and outside commentators have argued, quoting studies relating to the USA, that media coverage of the issue has been excessive given that abuse occurs much more frequently in other institutions.[13][14] Other commentators have said that the scandal highlights deep-seated problems with mandatory celibacy in the priesthood of the Catholic Church and how that institution deals with allegations of child abuse by its clergy.[15]


Scope and nature

Global extent

In a statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi in September 2009, the Holy See stated "We know now that in the last 50 years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases," adding that this figure was comparable with that of other groups and denominations.[16]

In 2002, the John Jay report tabulated a total of 4392 priests and deacons in the U.S. against whom allegations of sexual abuse were considered by their diocese to have been "substantiated. In 2001, major lawsuits emerged in the United States and Ireland, alleging that some priests had sexually abused minors and that their superiors had conspired to conceal and otherwise abet their criminal misconduct.[3] Although the scandals in the U.S. and Ireland unfolded over approximately the same time period, there are some significant differences between them. In the United States, most of the abusers were parish priests under diocesan control. While there were also a significant number of abuse cases involving parish priests in Ireland, another major scandal involved abuse that was crime to have been committed by members of religious orders working in Catholic-run institutions such as orphanages and reform schools. In the United States, the abuse was primarily sexual in nature and involved mostly boys between the ages of 11 and 17. In Ireland, the allegations involved both physical abuse and sexual abuse; children of both genders were involved, although a large majority were male.

Allegations of clergy sexual abuse have surfaced in numerous other countries (see Roman Catholic sex abuse cases by country). After the United States, the country with the next highest number of cases is Ireland with a significant number of cases being reported in Australia and New Zealand, and Canada. A significant number of cases have been reported in Europe, Latin America and Asia.[17] As a representative example, the organisation Broken Rites has detailed 71 cases where Catholic priests have been convicted and jailed for child sex offences in Australia, as well as others involving non custodial sentences and inconclusive proceedings.[18]

United States

The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The surveys filtered provided information from diocesan files on each priest accused of sexual abuse and on each of the priest's victims to the research team, in a format which did not disclose the names of the accused priests or the dioceses where they worked. The dioceses were encouraged to issue reports of their own based on the surveys that they had completed.

The report determined that, between 1950 and 2002, 10,667 people had made allegations of child sexual abuse. Of these, 3300 were not investigated because the allegations were made after the accused priest had died. After investigating the remaining 7700 allegations, the dioceses were able to substantiate 6,700 accusations against 4,392 priests in the USA, about 4% of all 109,694 priests who served during the time period covered by the study.[19] The number of abuses increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and by the 1990s had returned to the levels of the 1950s.[20]

Of the 4,392 priests against whom the accusations were deemed to be credible, 3,300 were not investigated because the allegations were made after the accused priest had died. Police were contacted regarding 1,021 of the remaining 1092 priests. 384 of these priests were prosecuted, resulting in 252 convictions and 100 prison sentences. Thus, 6% of all priests against whom allegations were made were convicted and about 2% received prison sentences to date.[4][21]

According to the John Jay report, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002 and 2003, and another third between 1993 and 2001.[20]

An overwhelming majority of the victims, 81 percent, were males. A majority of the victims were post-pubescent adolescents, with a small percentage of pre-pubescent children.[22]

Some sources have asserted that most of the victims were between the ages of 16 and 17, making the sexual abuse instances of hebephilia rather than pedophilia. These sources argue that, by failing to make this distinction, the media has fostered a misconception of the problem. In fact, 15% of the victims were 16 or 17 years of age, while 51% were between the ages of 11 and 14.[20] The John Jay Report determined that just under 6% of victims were 7 years of age or younger. 16% were between 8 and 10.[20] The vast majority of the victims (78%) were aged between 11 and 17.

In the United States, half of the 4392 priests who were found to have been credibly accused of abusing minors were 35 years of age or younger at the time of the first instance of abuse. Fewer than 7% of the priests were reported to have themselves been victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. Although 19% of the accused priests had alcohol or substance abuse problems, only 9% were reported to have been using drugs or alcohol during the instances of abuse. Almost 70% of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970.[20]

Based on a database of 3000 priests accused of sexual abuse that it had compiled, the group said in 2009 that one-third of the abusive priests in the United States had links to Ireland.[23]

Of the priests in the United States who were accused of sexual abuse, 59% were accused of a single allegation. Just under 3% of the priests were the subject of ten or more allegations. The 149 priests who had more than 10 allegations against them accounted for 2,960 of the total number of allegations.[20]

Diocesan response

A major cause of the scandal surrounding clerical sexual abuse was criticism of the actions of Catholic bishops in responding to allegations of clerical abuse.[24] For the most part, responding to allegations of sexual abuse in a diocese was left to the jurisdiction of the bishop or archbishop.

Rehabilitation efforts

A major focus of the lawsuits and media attention since 2002 has been criticism of the approach taken by bishops when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests. As a general rule, the allegations were not reported to legal authority for investigation and prosecution. Instead, many dioceses directed the offending priests to seek psychological treatment and assessment. According to the US John Jay report, nearly 40% of priests accused to have committed sexual abuse participated in treatment programs. The more allegations were made against a priest, the more likely he was to participate in treatment.[20] Some bishops repeatedly moved offending priests from parish to parish, where they still had personal contact with children.[3][5]

In response to these allegations, defenders of the Church's actions have suggested that in re-assigning priests after treatment, bishops were acting on the best medical advice then available.

According to the USCCB, Catholic bishops in the fifties and sixties viewed sexual abuse by priests as "a spiritual problem, one requiring a spiritual solution, i.e. prayer".[25] However, starting in the sixties, the bishops came to adopt an emerging view based on the advice of medical personnel who recommended psychiatric and psychological treatment for those who sexually abused minors. This view asserted that, with proper treatment, priests who had molested children could safely be placed back into ministry, although perhaps with certain restrictions such as not being in contact with children.[4][5][6][7] This approach viewed pedophilia as an addiction, such as alcoholism which many feel cannot be cured but which can be treated and restrained.[26] Some of the North American treatment facilities most frequently used for this purpose included the Saint Luke Institute in Maryland; centers operated by the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, NM, and St. Louis, MO; John Vianney Center in Downingtown, PA.; the Institute of Living in Hartford, CT; and the Southdown Institute near Toronto, ON .[27]

This approach continued to be practiced by the bishops well into the mid-1980s, a period which the USCCB characterizes as the "tipping point in the understanding of the problem within the church and in society".[25] The Servants of the Paraclete were ministering to sexually abusive priests at their center in Gloucestershire, England as late as 1998.[28]

According to Paul Isley research on priest offenders is virtually nonexistent, and the claims of unprecedented treatment success with clergy offenders have not been supported by published data.[29]

Criticism of non-removal

The Catholic hierarchy has been criticized for not acting more quickly and decisively to remove, defrock and report priests accused of sexual misconduct. In response to such criticism, contemporary bishops have asserted that the hierarchy was unaware until recent years of the danger in shuffling priests from one parish to another and in concealing the priests' problems from those they served. For example, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said: "We have said repeatedly that ... our understanding of this problem and the way it's dealt with today evolved, and that in those years ago, decades ago, people didn't realize how serious this was, and so, rather than pulling people out of ministry directly and fully, they were moved."[30]

One early opponent of the treatment of sexually abusive priests was Father Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of The Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete. Although Fitzgerald started the Servants of the Paraclete to assist priests who were struggling with alcohol and substance abuse problems, he soon began receiving priests who had sexually abused minors. Initially, Fitzgerald attempted to treat such priests using the same spiritual methods that he used with his other "guests". However, as he grew convinced of the futility of treating sexually abusive priests, Fitzgerald came to oppose vehemently the return of sexual abusers to duties as parish priests. He wrote regularly to bishops in the United States and to Vatican officials, including the pope, of his opinion that many sexual abusers in the priesthood could not be cured and should be defrocked immediately.[31]

Eventually, Fitzgerald lost control of the Servants of the Paraclete. The center began to employ medical and psychological professionals who added psychiatry and medical treatment to the spiritual regimen of treatment favored by Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald continued to oppose these modifications to his treatment regimen until his death in 1969.[31]

In a New York Times article, Bishop Blase J. Cupich, chairman of the United States Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, is quoted explaining why Father Fitzgerald’s advice "went largely unheeded for 50 years": First, "cases of sexually abusive priests were considered to be rare." Second, Father Fitzgerald's, “views, by and large, were considered bizarre with regard to not treating people medically, but only spiritually, and also segregating a whole population with sexual problems on a deserted island.” And finally, “There was mounting evidence in the world of psychology that indicated that when medical treatment is given, these people can, in fact, go back to ministry.” This was a view which Cupich characterized as one that "the bishops came to regret." [32]

Criticism of secrecy

It was revealed that some bishops had facilitated compensation payments to victims on condition that the allegations remained secret.[33] For example, according to the Boston Globe, the Archdiocese of Boston secretly settled child sexual abuse claims against at least 70 priests from 1992 to 2002.[33]

In November 2009, the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse reported its findings in which it concluded that:

"the Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State".[34]

Vatican position and procedures

In 1962, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, sent a letter which became known as the Crimen sollicitationis. In this letter, addressed to "all Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops and other Local Ordinaries, including those of Eastern Rite", the Holy Office laid down procedures to be followed in dealing with cases of clerics (priests or bishops) of the Roman Catholic Church accused of having used the sacrament of Penance to make sexual advances to penitents; its rules were more specific than the generic ones in the Code of Canon Law.[35] In addition, it instructed that the same procedures be used when dealing with denunciations of homosexual, paedophile or zoophile behaviour by clerics. It repeated the rule that any Catholic who failed for over a month to denounce a priest who had made such advances in connection with confession was automatically excommunicated and could be absolved only after actually denouncing the priest or at least promising seriously to do so.[36]

In 1983, the Vatican promulgated a revised Code of Canon Law which included a canon (1395, 2) which explicitly named sex with a minor by clerics as a canonical crime.

In April, 2001, pope John Paul II issued Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela[37] (Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments). This replaced the Crimen sollicitationis. All priestly sex crimes cases were to be placed under the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which, in most cases, would authorize the bishops to conduct trials themselves. In may 2001, a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in line with the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, was send to the catholics bishops.[38].

To place the cases under the competence of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been criticized by some as making the process more secretive and lengthening the time required to address the allegations. For example, in his biography of John Paul II, David Yallop asserts that the backlog of referrals to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for action against sexually abusive priests is so large that it takes 18 months to get a reply.[citation needed]

Vatican officials have expressed concern that the church's insistence on confidentiality in its treatment of priestly sexual abuse cases was seen as a ban on reporting serious accusations to the civil authorities. Early in 2010 Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the head of the Congregation for Clergy group, said instances of sexual abuse by priests were "criminal facts" as well as serious sins, and required co-operation with the civil justice system. Italian academic Lucetta Scaraffia described the conspiracy involved in hiding the offence as omerta, the Mafia code of silence, and said "We can hypothesise that a greater female presence, not at a subordinate level, would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past often covered the denunciation of these misdeeds with silence"[39].

Criticism of secrecy in Church proceedings

Some parties have interpreted the Crimen sollicitationis as a directive from the Vatican to keep all allegations of sexual abuse secret, leading to widespread media coverage of its contents.[40][41][42] Lawyers for some of those making abuse allegations claimed that the document demonstrated a systematic conspiracy to conceal such crimes.[43][44] The Vatican responded that the document was not only widely misinterpreted, but moreover had been superseded by more recent guidelines in the 1960s and 1970s, and especially the 1983 Code of Canon Law.[45][46]

Progressive public awareness

Although nation-wide enquiries have only been conducted in the United States and Ireland, cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors have been reported and prosecuted in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries.

In 1994 allegations of sexual abuse on 47 young seminarists surfaced in Argentina.[47]

In 1995 Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër resigned from his post as Archbishop of Vienna, Austria over allegations of sexual abuse, although he remained a Cardinal.[48]

In Australia more than 12 priests of the archdioceses of Canberra and Goulburn, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Townsville, Ballarat, Bunbury, Wagga Wagga and Marist Fathers of Tasmania were convicted for sexual abuse.

Awareness in Canada

Although the sheer number of sexual abuse cases in the United States. has focused public attention on that country, there had been a smaller-scale scandal in Canada more than a decade before the US scandal. In the late 1980s allegations were made of physical and sexual abuse committed by members of the Christian Brothers, who operated the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's, Newfoundland. The government, police and church colluded in an unsuccessful attempt to cover up the allegations, but in December 1989 they were publicized in the St. John's Sunday Express. Eventually more than 300 former pupils came forward with allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the orphanage.[49] The religious order that ran the orphanage filed for bankruptcy in the face of numerous lawsuits. Since the Mount Cashel scandal a number of priests across Canada have been accused of sexual abuse.

Awareness in the U.S.

Although bishops had been sending sexually abusive priests to facilities such as those operated by the Servants of the Paraclete since the 1950s, there was scant public discussion of the problem until the mid-1960s. Even then, most of the discussion was held amongst the Catholic hierarchy with little or no coverage in the media. The first public discussion of sexual abuse of minors by priests took place at a meeting sponsored by the National Association for Pastoral Renewal held on the campus of Notre Dame University in 1967, to which all U.S. Catholic bishops were invited. Various local and regional discussions of the problem were held by Catholic bishops in later years.

However, it was not until the 1980s that discussion of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clerics began to be covered as a phenomenon in the news media of the United States. According to the Catholic News Service public awareness of the sexual abuse of children in the United States and Canada emerged in the late 1970s and the 1980s as an outgrowth of the growing awareness of physical abuse of children.

In 1981 Father Donald Roemer of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles pled guilty to felonious sexual abuse of a minor. The case received widespread media coverage. In September 1983, the National Catholic Reporter published an article on the topic.[50]. The subject gained wider national notoriety in October 1985 when Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe pled guilty to 11 counts of molestation of boys.[51] After the coverage of Gilbert Gauthe subsided, the issue faded to the fringes of public attention until the mid-1990s, when the issue was again brought to national attention after a number of books on the topic were published.[52]

In early 2002 the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests drew the attention, first of the United States and ultimately the world, to the problem.[53][54][55] Other victims began to come forward with their own allegations of abuse resulting in more lawsuits and criminal cases.[3] Since then, the problem of clerical abuse of minors has received significantly more attention from the Church hierarchy, law enforcement agencies, government and the news media.

Awareness in Ireland

Starting in the 1990s a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had abused thousands of impressionable children in previous decades. In many cases the abusing priests had been moved by senior clergy to other parishes to avoid embarrassment or scandal. By 2010 a number of in-depth judicial reports had been published, but with relatively few prosecutions. The abuse was occasionally made known to staff at the Department of Education, the police and other government bodies, who have said that prosecuting clergy was extremely difficult given the "Catholic ethos" of the Irish Republic.

In 1994 Micheal Ledwith resigned as President of St Patrick's College, Maynooth when allegations of sexual abuse were made public. In June 2005 Denis McCullough reported that a number of bishops had rejected concerns about Ledwith's inappropriate behavior towards seminarians "so completely and so abruptly without any adequate investigation" although his report conceded that "to investigate in any very full or substantial manner, a generic complaint regarding a person’s apparent propensities would have been difficult”.[56]

One of the most notorious cases of sex abuse in Ireland involved Brendan Smyth, who, between 1945 and 1989, sexually abused and indecently assaulted twenty children in parishes in Belfast, Dublin and the United States.[57] Controversy over the handling of his extradition to Northern Ireland led to the 1994 collapse of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition government.[58]

Response of the Irish government

In an address before the Irish parliament on May 11, 1999, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced a comprehensive program to respond to the scandal of abuse in the nation's Catholic-run childcare institutions. Ahern’s speech included the first official apology to those who had been abused physically and sexually while they had been in the care of these institutions. The Taoiseach asked the abuse victims for forgiveness, saying: “On behalf of the State and of all citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.”[58]

In response to the furor aroused by the media reports of abuse in Irish government institutions run by religious orders, the Irish government commissioned a study which took nine years to complete. On May 20, 2009, the commission released its 2600 page report, which drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 institutions. The commission found that there were thousands of allegations of physical abuse of children of both sexes over a period of six decades. Over the same period there were also around 370 allegations of children who had suffered various forms of sexual abuse from religious and others.[59][60] The report also revealed that government inspectors had failed in their responsibility to detect and stop the abuse. The report characterized sexual molestation as "endemic" in some church-run industrial schools and orphanages for boys.[61]

In the wake of the broadcast of a BBC Television documentary "Suing the Pope", which highlighted the case of Seán Fortune, one of the most notorious clerical sexual offenders, the Irish government initiated an official inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the Irish Roman Catholic Diocese of Ferns. .[62] The inquiry resulted in the publication of the Ferns Report in 2005.

In response to the Ferns Report, Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen stated that he was "ashamed by the extent, length, and cruelty" of child abuse, apologized to victims for the government's failure to intervene in endemic sexual abuse and severe beatings in schools for much of the 20th century. Cowen also promised to reform the Ireland's social services for children in line with the recommendations of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report.[63] Irish President Mary McAleese and Cowen made further motions to start criminal investigation against members of Roman Catholic religious orders in Ireland.[64]

In November 2009, Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse reported its findings in which it concluded that:

"the Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State".


In 2009, The Murphy Report is the result of a three-year public inquiry conducted by Irish government into the Sexual abuse scandal in Dublin archdiocese, released a few months after the report of the Ryan report. The Murphy report stated that, "The Commission has no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities". It found that, "The structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated that cover-up." Moreover, the report asserted that, "State authorities facilitated that cover-up by not fulfilling their responsibilities to ensure that the law was applied equally to all and allowing the Church institutions to be beyond the reach of the normal law enforcement processes." The report criticized four archbishops – John Charles McQuaid who died in 1973, Dermot Ryan who died in 1984, Kevin McNamara who died in 1987, and retired Cardinal Desmond Connell – for not handing over information on abusers to legal authorities.[65]

Response of the Church

The Catholic Church response to the scandal can be viewed on three levels: the diocesan level, the episcopal conference level and the Vatican. Responses to the scandal proceeded at all three levels in parallel, with the higher levels becoming progressively more involved as the gravity of the problem became more apparent.

Although the Vatican did not respond immediately to the series of articles published by the Boston Globe in 2002, it has been reported that Vatican officials were, in fact, monitoring the situation in the U.S. closely.[66] Over time, it became more apparent that the problem warranted greater Vatican involvement.

Before the Boston Globe coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, handling of sexual abuse allegations was largely left up to the discretion of individual bishops. After the number of allegations exploded following the Globe's series of articles, U.S. bishops felt compelled to formulate a coordinated response at the episcopal conference level.

In 2008, the Church asserted that the scandal was a very serious problem but, at the same time, estimated that it was "probably caused by 'no more than 1 per cent' (or 5,000) of the over 500,000 Roman Catholic priests worldwide.[4][67][68]

In 2009, two researchers reported that abuse cases had "steeply declined" after 1985 and that responses to abuse had changed substantially over 50 years, with suspension becoming more common than reinstatement.[69][70]

Diocesan responses

Section: #Resignations, retirements and defrockings

Many of the accused priests were forced to resign or were defrocked. In addition, several bishops who had participated in the cover-up were also forced to resign or retire.[71]

Dioceses in the United States have paid more than 2.6 billion US dollars in abuse-related costs since 1950.[72]

As of March 2006, dioceses in the United States had made financial settlements with the victims totaling over 1.5 billion dollars[20] The number and size of these settlements made it necessary for the dioceses to reduce their ordinary operating expenses by closing churches and schools.[3] Several dioceses chose to declare chapter 11 bankruptcy as a way to litigate settlements while protecting some church assets to insure it continues to operate.

Response of the Church in Ireland

In June 2001, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland established the Catholic Church Commission on Child Sexual Abuse (Ireland), also known as the Hussey Commission, to investigate how complaints about clerical abuse of minors have been handled over the last three decades.

In February 2002, 18 religious orders agreed to provide more than 128 million Euros (approximately $128 million) in compensation to the victims of childhood abuse. Most of the money was raised from church property transfers to the State; in fact the actual value of the settlement is estimated to be about half that, and the Archbisop of Dublin in 2009 accused the orders of falling short even on the amount promised, and said the church's failure to complete transfers of cash, property and land worth at least €128 million over the past seven years "is stunning"[73]. The agreement also stipulated that any victims who accepted monetary settlements would waive their right to sue both the church and the government, [74] and that the identities of the accused abusers was to be kept secret.[73] In 2009 the orders agreed to increase their contribution; it was learned that total compensation paid to victims was about €1.2 billion, so that until then the promised €128 m had only been about 10% of the total.[74]

Response of the Church in the Phillipines

When sexual scandals involving Catholic priests in the US came to light in 2002, the Philippines media began reporting on abuses by local priests. In July of that year, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines apologized for sexual misconduct committed by its priests over the last two decades and committed to drafting guidelines on how to deal with allegations of such offenses. According to Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference, about 200 of the country's 7,000 priests may have committed "sexual misconduct" – including child abuse, homosexuality and affairs – over the past two decades.[75]

Effects of lawsuits on dioceses and parishes in the United States

Compensation payments, bankruptcies and closures

According to Donald Cozzens, "by the end of the mid 1990s, it was estimated that [...] more than half a billion dollars had been paid in jury awards, settlements and legal fees." This figure grew to about one billion dollars by 2002.[76] Roman Catholics spent $615 million on sex abuse cases in 2007.[3][77]

The dioceses in which abuse was committed or in which abuse allegations were settled out of court found it necessary to make financial settlements with the victims totaling over $1.5 billion as of March 2006,[20] have had a significant impact on the finances of many dioceses. The number and size of these settlements made it necessary for the dioceses to reduce their ordinary operating expenses by closing churches, parishes and schools in order to raise the funds to make these payments.[3]

In many instances, dioceses were forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of the settlements. At least six U.S. dioceses sought bankruptcy protection. In some cases, the dioceses filed bankruptcy just before civil suits against them were about to go to trial. This had the effect of mandating that pending and future lawsuits be settled in bankruptcy court.

Resignations, retirements and defrockings

Many of the accused priests were forced to resign or were defrocked. In addition, several bishops who had participated in the cover up were also forced to resign or retire.[71]

Bernard Francis Law, Cardinal and Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, United States resigned after Church documents were revealed which suggested he had covered up sexual abuse committed by priests in his archdiocese.[78] On December 13, 2002 Pope John Paul II accepted Law's resignation as Archbishop and reassigned him to an administrative position in the Roman Curia naming him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and he later presided at one of the Pope's funeral masses. Law's successor in Boston, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Séan P. O'Malley found it necessary to sell substantial real estate properties and close a number of churches in order to pay the $120 million in claims against the archdiocese.

Two bishops of [[Roman Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach|Palm Beach, Florida] resigned due to child abuse allegations. Resigned bishop Joseph Keith Symons was replaced by Anthony O'Connell, who later also resigned in 2002.

Response of the Church in the U.S.

As the breadth and depth of the scandals became apparent in dioceses across the United States, it became apparent to the American bishops that a joint response was warranted at the episcopal conference level. John F. Allen Jr. characterized the reaction of the USCCB as calling for “swift, sure and final punishment for priests who are guilty of this kind of misconduct.” In contrast to this, Allen characterized the Vatican's primary concern as wanting to make sure “that everyone’s rights are respected, including the rights of accused clergy" and wanting to affirm that it is not acceptable to "remedy the injustice of sexual abuse with the injustice of railroading priests who may or may not be guilty.”[66]

Prevention efforts

In response to perceived deficiencies in canonical and secular law, both ecclesiastical and civil authorities have implemented procedures and laws to prevent sexual abuse of minors by clergy and to report and punish it if and when it occurs. In 2002, the USCCB adopted a policy for responding to allegations of sexual abuse. The USCCB characterized this policy as being "zero tolerance".[79][80] Catholic News Service reported that, by 2008, the U.S. church had "trained 5.8 million children to recognize and report abuse. It had run criminal checks on 1.53 million volunteers and employees, 162,700 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination. It had trained 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers in creating a safe environment for children."[81]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) perceived a lack of adequate procedures for the prevention of sexual abuse of minors, the reporting of allegations of such abuse and the handling of those reports. In June 2002, the USCCB moved to address these deficiencies by promulgating a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that pledged the Catholic Church in the U.S. to providing a "safe environment" for all children in Church-sponsored activities. The thrust of the charter was the adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse.[79][80] The Charter instituted reforms to prevent future abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees.[9] The Charter requires dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[9][82] A Dallas Morning News article claimed nearly two-thirds of the bishops attending had themselves at one point covered for sexually abusive priests.[83]

Reception by the laity

A study conducted by Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in 2006 found that, although many Catholics were unaware of the specific steps that the church has taken, when informed, large majorities approve these actions. 78% strongly approved of reporting allegations of sexual abuse by clergy to civil authorities and cooperating in civil investigations. 76% strongly approved of removing from ministry people credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.[84][85][86]

Ongoing investigations

While the Church in the United States claims to have addressed the issue, some disagree. In 2005, Dr. Kathleen McChesney of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the crisis was not yet over because hundreds of victims across the country were still reporting past episodes of abuse. She said: "In 2004, at least 1,092 allegations of sexual abuse were made against at least 756 Catholic priests and deacons in the United States. Most of the incidents occurred between 1965 and 1974. What is over is the denial that this problem exists, and what is over is the reluctance of the Church to deal openly with the public about the nature and extent of the problem."[87]

Despite the National Review Board's own estimates that there have been some 5,000 abusive priests in the US, to date only 150 have been successfully prosecuted. Some critics of the Church such as Patrick Wall attribute this to a lack of cooperation from the church. In California, for example, the archdiocese has sought to block the disclosure of confidential counseling records on two priests arguing that such action would violate their First Amendment right on religious protection.[88]

Vatican's response

John F. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has commented that many American Catholics saw the Vatican’s initial silence on the Boston Globe stories as showing a lack of concern or awareness about the issue. However, Allen said that, he doesn't know anyone in the Roman Curia, who was not at least horrified "by the revelations that came out of the Globe and elsewhere" or would defend "Cardinal Law’s handling of the cases in Boston" or "the rather shocking lack of oversight that revealed itself" though "they might have different analyses of what should have happened to him".[66] Allen described the Vatican's perspective as being somewhat skeptical of the media handling of the scandal. In addition, he asserted that the Vatican viewed American cultural attitudes toward sexuality as being somewhat hysterical as well as exhibiting a lack of understanding of the Catholic Church.[66] According to Allen, cultural differences between the Vatican and American Catholics complicated the process of formulating a comprehensive response to the sexual abuse scandal: "there is a lot about the American culture and the American Church that puzzles people in the Vatican, and there is much about the Vatican that puzzles Americans and English speakers generally."[66]

On April 30, 2001, John Paul II, issued a letter stating that "a sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue by a cleric with a minor under 18 years of age is to be considered a grave sin, or 'delictum gravius.'"[84] In 2003, Pope John Paul II stated that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[8]

In April 2003, the Pontifical Academy for Life organized a three-day conference, entitled "Abuse of Children and Young People by Catholic Priests and Religious", where eight non-Catholic psychiatric experts were invited to speak to near all Vatican dicasteries' representatives. The panel of experts overwhelmingly opposed implementation of policies of "zero-tolerance" such as was proposed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. One expert called such policies a "case of overkill" since they do not permit flexibility to allow for differences among individual cases.[84] The panel of experts identified the following factors contributing to the sexual abuse problem:[89] 1. Failure by the hierarchy to grasp the seriousness of the problem, 2. Overemphasis on the need to avoid a scandal, 3. Use of unqualified treatment centers, 4. Misguided willingness to forgive, 5. Insufficient accountability.

Archbishop Csaba Ternyak, secretary of the Congregation for Clergy, put the following question to the experts: "[T]o what degree one can talk about the rehabilitation of the offender, what are the most effective methods of treatment, and on what grounds we can say that a person who has never offended is at risk to sexually molest someone?" [84][90]

Ternyak spoke about the way that the crisis had damaged the priest-bishop relationship. He noted that there was a "sense of gloom" felt by the overwhelming majority of priests who had not been accused of any abuse but nonethless who perceived that their bishops had turned against them and therefore had "become disillusioned about the effectiveness of the laws of the Church to defend their dignity and their inalienable rights". Ternyak also noted that "there have been more than a few suicides among accused priests."[84] In addition, during a visit to the United States Pope Benedict XVI said that he is "deeply ashamed" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has devastated the American church and apologized for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and pledged that pedophiles would not be allowed to become priests in the Catholic Church.[91] Pope Benedict also said he is ashamed for child abuse scandal in Australia.

The Vatican instituted reforms to prevent future United States abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees[9] and issued new rules disallowing ordination of men with "deep–seated homosexual tendencies". The US National Review Board cited the preponderance of adolescent males among the victims of clerical sexual abuse of minors in its report.[7][11] They now require dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[9][92]

William McMurry, a Louisville, Kentucky lawyer, filed suit against the Vatican[93] in June 2004 on behalf of three men alleging abuse as far back as 1928, accusing Church leaders of organizing a cover up of cases of sexual abuse of children. In November, 2008, the United States Court of Appeals in Cincinnati denied the Vatican's claim of sovereign immunity and allowed the case to proceed. The Vatican did not appeal the ruling.

However, when Pope Benedict was personally accused in a lawsuit of conspiring to cover up the molestation of three boys in Texas by Juan Carlos Patino-Arango in Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, he sought and obtained diplomatic immunity from prosecution.[94] Some have claimed that this immunity was granted after intervention by then US President George W. Bush.[95] The Department of State "recognize[d] and allow[ed] the immunity of Pope Benedict XVI from this suit."[96]

During a recent visit to the United States Pope Benedict admitted that he is "deeply ashamed" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has devastated the American church. Benedict pledged that paedophiles would not be priests in the Roman Catholic Church.[97]

In a statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 22 September 2009, the Holy See stated that the majority of Catholic clergy who had committed acts of sexual abuse against under 18 year olds should not be viewed as paedophiles, but as homosexuals who are attracted to sex with adolescent males. The statement said that rather than paedophilia, "it would be more correct to speak of ephebophilia; being a homosexual attraction to adolescent males" ....... "Of all priests involved in the abuses, 80 to 90% belong to this sexual orientation minority which is sexually engaged with adolescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17."[16][98]

The move angered many gay rights organisations, who claimed it was an attempt by the Vatican to redefine the Church's past problems with paedophilia as problems with homosexuality.[99]

Criticism of media coverage

There was significant negative public opinion regarding what was perceived as the failure of the Catholic hierarchy to respond adequately to allegations of sexual abuse and the seemingly sluggish response of the Vatican to the unfolding scandal. Some sources argue that this negative public opinion was exaggerated by misconceptions and differences in perspectives.

Some sources argue that the negative public opinion was fueled in part by statements made to the media by various parties with differing agendas including lawyers for those suing the Church for damages resulting the sexual abuse. As the public furor over the scandal grew, some members of the Catholic Church began to see an anti-Catholic agenda behind some of these pronouncements.

Criticism of media coverage by Catholics and others centered on an excessive focus being placed on Catholic incidences of abuse. Such voices argue that equal or greater levels of child sexual abuse in other religious groups or in secular contexts such as the US public school system have been either ignored or given minimal coverage by mainstream media.[100] Commentator Tom Hoopes wrote:

during the first half of 2002, the 61 largest newspapers in California ran nearly 2,000 stories about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, mostly concerning past allegations. During the same period, those newspapers ran four stories about the federal government’s discovery of the much larger — and ongoing — abuse scandal in public schools.[101]

Philip Jenkins claims that the Roman Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by a secular media which he claims fails to highlight similar sexual accusations in other religious groups, such as the Anglican Communion, Islam and Judaism, and various Protestant churches, communities. Jenkins asserted that media coverage of the abuse story had become "...a gross efflorescence of anti-catholic rhetoric."[102]

Debate over causes

Seminary training

Clergy themselves have suggested their seminary training offered little to prepare them for a lifetime of celibate sexuality. Rome's Congregation for Catholic Education issued an official document, the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocation for Persons with Homosexual Tendencies[103] in 2005, which attracted criticism based on an interpretation that the document implies that homosexuality leads to pedophilia.[104]

Declining standards explanation

In The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, George Weigel claims that it was the infidelity to orthodox Roman Catholic teaching, the "culture of dissent" of priests, women religious, bishops, theologians, catechists, Church bureaucrats, and activists who "believed that what the Church proposed as true was actually false" was mainly responsible for this problem.[105] Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired Archbishop of Washington, blamed the declining morals of the late 20th century as a cause of the high number of sexually abusive priests.[106]

Ultra-conservative Roman Catholics claimed that the Second Vatican Council itself (1962–1965) fostered a climate that encouraged priests to abuse children.[citation needed] The council directed an opening of the doors to meet the world. However traditional Roman Catholics believe that this led to a conversion of Roman Catholics to secularism rather than vice versa.[citation needed] Others respond that abuse by priests was occurring long before the start of Vatican II and that many of the Roman Catholic sex abuse cases did not involve pedophilia.[citation needed]

Other assert that the increased reporting of abuse in child-care institutions during this time was concomitant with rising police interest, investigation and prosecution of such crimes. As such it is not certain that a sudden "crisis of abuse" ever existed, instead the dramatic increase in reported abuse cases may simply have heralded the end of a long-term endemic problem found throughout a number of institutions, both secular and religious, prior to the introduction of quality control measures specifically aimed at preventing such abuses from occurring.[citation needed]

Supply and demand explanation

It has been argued that the shortage of priests in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.[107][108] caused the Roman Catholic hierarchy to act in such a way to preserve the number of clergy and ensure that sufficient numbers were available to serve the congregation despite serious allegations that these priests were unfit for duty.[citation needed] Others disagree and assert that the Church hierarchy's mishandling of the sex abuse cases merely reflected their prevailing attitude at the time towards any illegal or immoral activity by clergy.

Celibacy explanation

A 2005 article in the Irish weekly the Western People, proposed that clerical celibacy contributed to the abuse problem by suggesting that the institution of celibacy has created a "morally superior" status that is easily misapplied by abusive priests: "The Irish Church’s prospect of a recovery is zero for as long as bishops continue blindly to toe the Vatican line of Pope Benedict XVI that a male celibate priesthood is morally superior to other sections of society."[109]

Sexual scandals among priests, the defenders say, are a breach of the Church's discipline, not a result of it, especially since only a small percentage of priests have been implicated. Furthermore there is no data supporting a higher rate of child-oriented sexual activity among the unmarried Roman Catholic clergy than that of the married clergy of other denominations[110] and of schoolteachers[111]. However, for those cases for which data is available, molestation of pre-pubescent children was found to be rare[112]. Consequently opinion remains divided on whether there is any definite link or connection between the Roman Catholic institution of celibacy and incidences of child abuse by Catholic clergy.

Philip Jenkins asserts that his "research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non-clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported."[113] Both supporters and many detractors of clerical celibacy state that Roman Catholic priests suffering sexual temptations are not likely to turn immediately to children simply because Church discipline does not permit clergy to marry.

On 11 March 2010 Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, said priestly celibacy could be one of the causes of the sex abuse scandals to hit the Catholic church. A spokesman clarified that he was "in no way" seeking to question the celibacy rule or call for its abolition[39]. Theologian Hans Küng had made the same assertion.

Italian academic Lucetta Scaraffia wrote in L'Osservatore Romano that a greater presence of women in the Vatican could have prevented clerical sexual abuse from taking place[39].

Comparison with other professions

Sexual abuse exists in all reaches of society.[citation needed] In terms of the relationship of the catholic sex abuse cases to other professions some studies are now emerging. A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse by Dr. Thomas Plante of Stanford University and Santa Clara University states that "available research suggests that approximately 2 to 5% of priests have had a sexual experience with a minor" which "is lower than the general adult male population that is best estimated to be closer to 8%".[114] Sexual Abuse in Social Context: Clergy and Other Professionals is a scholarly work that shows sexual abuse is not particularly prevalent within the Catholic hierarchy and that abuse is significantly higher among public school teachers than among ministers and priests. In the report, a study titled "Sexual abuse of students in schools" by Carol Shakeshaft, the instance of prevalence with the NTC public school system is described.[115] In the 1993 Journal of Pastoral Care, 14 percent of Southern Baptist ministers said they had engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior”.

Abuse in literature and films and popular culture


A number of books have been written, see List of books portraying pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors, about the abuse suffered from priests and nuns including Andrew Madden in Altar Boy: A Story of Life After Abuse, Carolyn Lehman's Strong at the Heart: How it feels to heal from sexual abuse and the bestselling Kathy's Story by Kathy O'Beirne which details physical and sexual abuse suffered in a Magdalene laundry in Ireland. Ed West from Daily Telegraph, claimed Kathy Beirne's story is "largely invented" according to book of Hermann Kelly, who is a Derry born journalist of Irish Daily Mail and former editor of the Irish Catholic, titled Kathy's Real Story from Prefect Press.[116]


The Magdalene laundries caught the public's attention in the late 1990s as claims of widespread abuse from some former inmates gathered momentum and were made the subject a controversial film called The Magdalene Sisters (2002). In 2006, a documentary called Deliver Us From Evil was made about the sex abuse cases and one priest's confession of abuse.

Several other films have been made about sex abuse within the Church, including:

See also

Church related
Vatican Documents
Church prevention efforts
Cardinals' abuse cases
Sexual abuse in other environments


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Additional reading

  • Groeschel, F. Benedict, From Scandal to Hope (OSV, 2002)
  • Jenkins, Philip, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-19-514597-6.
  • Lobdell, William, "Missionary's Dark Legacy; Two remote Alaska villages are still reeling from a Catholic volunteer's sojourn three decades ago, when he allegedly molested nearly every Eskimo boy in the parishes. The accusers, now men, are scarred emotionally and struggle to cope. They are seeking justice," Los Angeles Times, Nov 19, 2005, p. A.1
  • Ranan, David, Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church (Theo Press Ltd., 2007) ISBN 978-0-95541-330-8.

External links



United States

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