Catholic sex abuse cases

Catholic sex abuse cases

The Catholic sex abuse cases are a series of convictions, trials and ongoing investigations into allegations of sex crimes committed by Catholic priests and members of religious orders.[1] These cases began receiving public attention beginning in the mid-1980s.[2] There have been criminal prosecutions of the abusers and civil lawsuits against the church's dioceses and parishes.

Sexual abuse of minors by priests receives significant media attention in Canada, Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Belgium, France, and Germany, while cases have been reported throughout the world.

In addition to cases of abuse, much of the scandal has focused around members of the Catholic hierarchy who did not report abuse allegations to the civil authorities. In many cases they reassigned those accused to other locations where they continued to have contact with minors.[3] In defending their actions, some bishops and psychiatrists contended that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[4][5] Members of the church hierarchy have argued that media coverage has been excessive.[6] In response to the widening scandal, Pope John Paul II emphasized the spiritual nature of the offenses. He declared in 2001 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."[7] With the approval of the Vatican, the hierarchy of the church in the United States said that it instituted reforms to prevent future abuse including requiring background checks for Church employees and volunteers, while opposing extensions of the statutes of limitations in sex abuse cases.[8]


Scope and nature

Allegations of and convictions for sexual abuse by clergy has been subject to public debate in many countries (see Roman Catholic sex abuse cases by country). After the United States, the country with the next highest number of reported cases is Ireland. A significant number of cases have also been reported in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.[9]

In 2001, lawsuits were filed 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.[10] In 2004, the John Jay report tabulated a total of 4,392 priests and deacons in the U.S. against whom allegations of sexual abuse had been made.

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.[citation needed] While there were also a significant number of abuse cases involving parish priests in Ireland, another major scandal involved criminal abuse committed by members of religious orders working in Catholic-run institutions such as orphanages and reform schools.[citation needed] 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 and sexual abuse, and children of both sexes were involved, although a large majority were male.[citation needed]

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.[11] A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse by Dr. Thomas Plante of Stanford University and Santa Clara University states that "approximately 4% of priests during the past half century (and mostly in the 1960s and 1970s) have had a sexual experience with a minor" which "is consistent with male clergy from other religious traditions and is significantly lower than the general adult male population which may double these numbers".[4][12] Additionally, according to Newsweek magazine, the figure in the Catholic Church is similar to that in the rest of the adult population.[13]

Statistics on offenders and victims

United States

The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) 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 2004 John Jay Report[14] was based on a study of 10,667 allegations against 4,392 priests accused of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002.

The report stated there were approximately 10,667 reported victims (younger than 18 years) of clergy sexual abuse during this period:

  • Around 81 percent of these victims were male.
  • 22.6% were age 10 or younger, 51% were between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% were between the ages to 15 to 17 years.[15][16][17]
  • A substantial number (almost 2000) of very young children were victimized by priests during this time period.
  • 9,281 victim surveys had information about an investigation. In 6,696 (72%) cases, an investigation of the allegation was carried out. Of these, 4,570 (80%) were substantiated; 1,028 (18%) were unsubstantiated; 83 (1.5%) were found to be false. In 56 cases, priests were reported to deny the allegations.
  • More than 10 percent of these allegations were characterized as not substantiated. (This does not mean that the allegation was false; it means only that the diocese or order could not determine whether the alleged abuse actually took place.)
  • For approximately 20 percent of the allegations, the priest was deceased or inactive at the time of the receipt of the allegation and typically no investigation was conducted in these circumstances.
  • In 38.4% of allegations, the abuse is alleged to have occurred within a single year, in 21.8% the alleged abuse lasted more than a year but less than 2 years, in 28% between 2 and 4 years, in 10.2% between 5 and 9 years and, in under 1%, 10 or more years.

The 4,392 priests who were accused amount to approximately 4% of the 109,694 priests in active ministry during that time. Of these 4,392, approximately:

  • 56 percent had one reported allegation against them; 27 percent had two or three allegations against them; nearly 14 percent had four to nine allegations against them; 3 percent (149 priests) had 10 or more allegations against them. These 149 priests were responsible for almost 3,000 victims, or 27 percent of the allegations.[15]
  • The allegations were substantiated for 1,872 priests and unsubstantiated for 824 priests. They were thought to be credible for 1,671 priests and not credible for 345 priests. 298 priests and deacons who had been completely exonerated are not included in the study.
  • 50 percent were 35 years of age or younger at the time of the first instance of alleged abuse.[15]
  • Almost 70 percent were ordained before 1970.[15]
  • Fewer than 7 percent were reported to have themselves been victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. Although 19 percent had alcohol or substance abuse problems, only 9 percent were reported to have been using drugs or alcohol during the instances of abuse.[15]

Many of the reported acts of sexual abuse involved fondling or unspecified abuse. There was also a large number of allegations of forced acts of oral sex and intercourse. Detailed information on the nature of the abuse was not reported for 26.6% of the reported allegations. 27.3% of the allegations involved the cleric performing oral sex on the victim. 25.1% of the allegations involved penile penetration or attempted penetration.

Although there were reported acts of sexual abuse of minors in every year, the incidence of reported abuse increased by several orders of magnitude in the 1960s and 1970s. There was, for example, a more than sixfold increase in the number of reported acts of abuse of males aged 11 to 17 between the 1950s and the 1970s. After peaking in the 1970s, the number of incidents decreased through the 1980s and 1990s even more sharply than the incidence rate had increased in the 1960s and 1970s.

International 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 seminarians surfaced in Argentina.[18]

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.[19]

Since 1995, over one hundred priests from various parts of Australia were convicted for sexual abuse.[20]

On April 7, 2010, it was revealed that a former bishop of the Norwegian Catholic Church, Georg Müller, had confessed to the Norwegian Police in early January 2010 that he had sexually abused an underaged altar boy 20 years earlier. The Norwegian Catholic Church was made aware of the incident but did not alert the authorities. Müller was made to step down as a bishop in July 2009. As a reaction to this news, the Bishop of Oslo, Bernt Eidsvig, admitted to the Norwegian Press that he was aware of a total of four cases of child sexual abuse in the Norwegian Catholic Church.[21]

In November 2010, an independent group in Austria [22] that operates a hotline to help people exit the Catholic Church released a report documenting physical, sexual, and emotional abuse perpetrated by Austrian priests, nuns, and other religious officials. The report is based on hotline calls from 325 victims - 91 women (28%) and 234 men (72%), who named 422 perpetrators of both genders - 63% of whom were ordained priests.[23]

United States

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 pleaded 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.[24] The subject gained wider national notoriety in October 1985 when Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe pleaded guilty to 11 counts of molestation of boys.[25] After the coverage of Gauthe's crimes 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.[26]

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.[27][28][29] Other victims began to come forward with their own allegations of abuse, resulting in more lawsuits and criminal cases.[10] 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.


Starting in the 1990s a series of criminal cases and Irish government enquiries covered allegations that priests had abused hundreds of minors over previous decades. In many cases the abusing priests had been moved by senior clergy to other parishes. 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. The June 2005 McCullough Report found 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”.[30]

One of the most notorious cases of sex abuse in Ireland involved Brendan Smyth, who, between 1945 and 1989, sexually abused and indecently assaulted 20 children in parishes in Belfast, Dublin and the United States.[31] Controversy over the handling of his extradition to Northern Ireland led to the 1994 collapse of the Fianna Fáil/Labour coalition government.[32]


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.[33] The religious order that ran the orphanage filed for bankruptcy in the face of numerous lawsuits.[34] Since the Mount Cashel scandal a number of priests across Canada have been accused of sexual abuse.

In August of 2006, Father Charles Henry Sylvestre, of Belle River Ontario plead guilty to 47 counts of sexual abuse on females, aged between nine and fourteen years old between 1952 and 1989.[35] Sylvestre was given a sentence in October of 2006 of only three years, and died January 22 2007 after only three months in prison.[36]


In June 2010, Belgian police raided the Belgian Catholic Church headquarters in Brussels, seizing a computer and records of a Church commission investigating allegations of child abuse. The authorities are investigating accusations that some Belgian clerics sexually abused children. Hundreds of such claims had been raised since April 2010, when the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, admitted to molesting a boy and resigned.[37] The Vatican protested against the raids,[38] which Belgian police stated that were in response to complaints of deaths threats against witnesses and magistrates.[39]

Effects of lawsuits on dioceses

Outside Church circles, most sex abuse cases are subject to the law of each state. As of April 2010, many sex abusers associated with the Church in several countries have been tried by secular authorities and, where appropriate, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment. In earlier times, the Church itself could punish offenders under canon law by imprisonment, sequestration of property, and worse, but now only the secular system of criminal justice is suitable.


Third Reich 1933–1945

During the Nazi era, false cases of sexual abuse were fabricated to malign the Catholic Church. The "immorality trials" (Sittlichkeitsprozesse) of Catholic priests in April and May 1937 are the prime examples of this phenomenon.[40] In these trials, innocent priests and members of religious orders became the target of accusations of luring children and youth into sexual acts. Staged trials of Franciscan friars held in 1936 did not receive the media attention the National Socialist regime hoped for; and this was not the only problem. In a case that would eventually be dismissed as baseless the alleged victim, when asked at trial if the offender was in the courtroom, pointed to the president of the court.[41] Hence, in order to show that the "offences against morality" were a massive problem within the Catholic Church, the regime ordered that individual cases should be accumulated at a more opportune moment. A large number of cases were brought to trial in the spring of 1937. Stefan Micheler writes:

Over the course of eight weeks between April and June, the daily and party newspapers and radio devoted extensive, front-page coverage to the trials... The coverage focused on the seduction of children and youth, the exploitation of relationships of dependence, and the abuse of rank and office. The press ignored cases where investigations were dropped or trials resulted in acquittals due to lack of evidence or ill-founded accusations.[42]

In a speech at Berlin's Deutschlandhalle on May 30, 1937, Joseph Goebbels stated in front of 25,000 people that the "criminal aberrations of the Catholic clergy threaten the physical and moral health of our young people." He declared that the "plague" would be "radically extirpated." The speech was spurred on by the crowd's repeated cries of "Hang them! Massacre them!"[41] Florence Tamagne writes: "The anti-Catholic campaign continued until 1941. By 1936, all the Catholic youth organizations had been closed down." However, she also notes that, of approximately 20,000 German priests, "only 57 were convicted; of 4,000 members of the regular clergy, only 7 were convicted. Lastly, of 3,000 lay brothers, 170 were convicted, mostly Franciscans."[41] According to reports published by SoPaDe, the propaganda nature of the trials was widely recognized by both Catholics and Protestants. Nevertheless, as a result of the trials, children and youth would often avoid socializing with Catholic priests.[42]

Post-war Germany

According to The Economist and the Sydney Morning Herald, many Catholics are leaving the church in Germany due to the sex abuse scandal.[43][44] The number leaving in one month increased by a factor of four, to 472, in the Munich diocese since the start of 2010.[43] Additionally, the Germans' trust of the Pope dropped significantly; At the end of March 2010, only 39% of Catholic Germans trusted the Pope, whereas in January 2010 62% did.[43]

Norbert Denef founded Netzwerk Betroffener von Sexualisierter Gewalt, briefly netzwerkB, in April 2010.[45] Denef was abused as a child by Catholic clerics.

United States

Settlements, 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.[46] Roman Catholics spent $615 million on sex abuse cases in 2007.[47]

As of March 2006, dioceses in which abuse was committed or in which abuse allegations were settled out of court had made financial settlements with the victims totaling over $1.5 billion.[15] The number and size of these settlements made it necessary for the dioceses to reduce their ordinary operating expenses by closing churches and schools in order to raise the funds to make these payments.[10] Several dioceses chose to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a way to litigate settlements while protecting some church assets to ensure it continues to operate.

By 2009, U.S. dioceses have paid more than US$2.6 billion in abuse-related costs since 1950.[48]

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. Some priests whose crimes fell within statutes of limitation are in jail. Some have been defrocked. Others — because they are elderly, because of the nature of their offenses, or because they have had some success fighting the charges — cannot be defrocked under canon law. Some priests live in retreat houses that are carefully monitored and sometimes locked.[49]

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.[50] 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) Seán 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 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.

Irish government responses

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.”[32]

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.[51][52] 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.[53]

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. .[54] 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.[55] Irish President Mary McAleese and Cowen made further motions to start criminal investigation against members of Roman Catholic religious orders in Ireland.[56]

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".[57]

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.[58]

Church responses

The responses of the Catholic Church to the scandal can be viewed on three levels:

  1. the diocesan level,
  2. the episcopal conference level, and
  3. 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. For the most part, responding to allegations of sexual abuse in a diocese was left to the jurisdiction of the bishop or archbishop. According to Dr. Thomas Plante, a psychiatrist specializing in abuse counseling and considered an expert on clerical abuse, "unlike most large organizations that maintain a variety of middle management positions, the organizational structure of the Catholic Church is a fairly flat structure. Therefore, prior to the Church clergy abuse crisis in 2002, each bishop decided for himself how to manage these cases and the allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. Some have handled these matters very poorly (as evidenced in Boston) while others have handled these issues very well." [59]

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, the breadth and depth of the scandals became apparent in dioceses across the United States. The American bishops felt compelled to formulate a coordinated response at the episcopal conference level. 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.[60] Over time, it became more apparent that the problem warranted greater Vatican involvement.

John L. 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.”[60]

Diocesan responses

United States

The response to the allegations of child sexual abuse by the bishops, major superiors and other priests who were presented with the problem was first shaped by the timing of the allegation. When all allegations are considered, only one in four allegations was made within 10 years of the incident that gave rise to the allegation. Half of all allegations were made between 10 and 30 years after the incident and the remaining 25% were reported more than 30 years after the incident.[61]

Rehabilitation efforts

Since 2002, a major focus of the lawsuits and media attention 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 psychiatric treatment and for assessment of the risk of re-offending.

In 2004, according to the US John Jay report, nearly 40% of priests accused to have committed sexual abuse participated in psychiatric treatment programs. The remaining priests did not undergo abuse counseling because allegations of sexual abuse were only made after their death. The more allegations made against a priest, the more likely he was to participate in treatment.[15] Some bishops repeatedly moved offending priests from parish to parish after abuse counseling, where they still had personal contact with children.[3]

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.[citation needed]

According to the USCCB, Catholic bishops in the 1950s and '60s viewed sexual abuse by priests as "a spiritual problem, one requiring a spiritual solution, i.e. prayer".[62] 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.[63] This approach viewed pedophilia as an addiction, such as alcoholism which many feel cannot be cured but which can be treated and restrained.[62] 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 .[64]

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".[62] The Servants of the Paraclete were ministering to sexually abusive priests at their center in Gloucestershire, England as late as 1998.[65]

According to Paul Isley, however, research on priest offenders is virtually nonexistent and the claims of unprecedented treatment success with clergy offenders have not been supported by published data.[66]

Prevention efforts

The 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 response to 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 June 2002, the USCCB adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for responding to allegations of sexual abuse.[67] It promulgated 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.[67] The Charter instituted reforms to prevent future abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees.[68] The Charter requires dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[68] A Dallas Morning News article claimed nearly two-thirds of the bishops attending had themselves at one point covered for sexually abusive priests.[69]

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."[70]

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.[7][71][72]

Ongoing investigations

In 2005, Dr. Kathleen McChesney of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the crisis was not yet over because thousands 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."[73]

In late January (or early February) 2009, the sexual impropriety by the order's late founder Marcial Maciel Degollado was disclosed publicly.[74] In March, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the institutions of the Legionaries of Christ. The announcement of the investigation was posted on the Web site of the Legionaries of Christ March 31, 2009 along with the text of a letter informing the Legionaries of the pope's decision.[75] On June 27, 2009, according to Vatican commentator, Sandro Magister, Vatican authorities have named five bishops from five different countries, each one in charge of investigating the Legionaries in a particular part of the world. Their first report is due in the fall of 2009.[76]


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".[77] The agreement also stipulated that any victims who accepted monetary settlements would waive their right to sue both the church and the government,[78] and that the identities of the accused abusers was to be kept secret.[77] 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.[78]

In September 2010 the Vatican announced that it would shortly begin an investigation into how the Irish Catholic Establishment's handling of the sex abuse and subsequent scandal. This enquiry will include consulting groups representing victims. Co founder of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (Soca), stated that "Irish Soca and other survivors' groups are excited over the apostolic visitation because it's the end of allowing the Irish hierarchy to handle the scandal and crises on their own."[79]


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.[80]

In August 2011, activist women's group Gabriela assisted a 17-year old girl in filing sexual abuse allegations against a priest in Butuan province. The bishop of Butuan, Juan de Dios Pueblos, took the priest under his custody without handing him over to civil and church authorities.[81] This behaviour was also heavily criticized by retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who blamed Pueblos for showing his priests the "wrong way".[82]

Episcopal responses

United States

In June 2002, the USCCB established the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People", a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The charter includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability, and prevention of future acts of abuse.[68] It also directs action in the following matters:

  • Creating a safe environment for children and young people;
  • Healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors;
  • Making prompt and effective response to allegations;
  • Zero tolerance policy on abusers: If a credible accusation is made against a cleric, they are permanently removed from ministry regardless of how long ago the offense occurred;[83]
  • Cooperating with civil authorities;
  • Disciplining offenders;
  • Providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through a national Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and a National Review Board.

In other words, the US National Review Board now requires dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[84]

The Board also approached John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a descriptive study of the nature and scope of the problem of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The College assembled an experienced team of researchers with expertise in the areas of forensic psychology, criminology, and human behavior, and, working with the Board, formulated a methodology to address the study mandate. Data collection commenced in March 2003, and ended in February 2004.[85]

United Kingdom

The 2001 Lord Nolan recommendations, accepted in full by the bishops, became model guidelines for other bishops' conferences around the world, and a model for other institutions in Britain.[86] One guideline was that in each parish there should be a "safeguarding officer", a lay person who would vet—through an organization called the Criminal Records Bureau—anyone in the parish who had access to young people or vulnerable adults, and would be a contact for anyone with any concerns.[86]

Vatican responses

John L. 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 who 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".[60] 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.[60]

No one [in the Vatican] thinks the sexual abuse of kids is unique to the States, but they do think that the reporting on it is uniquely American, fueled by anti-Catholicism and shyster lawyers hustling to tap the deep pockets of the church. And that thinking is tied to the larger perception about American culture, which is that there is a hysteria when it comes to anything sexual, and an incomprehension of the Catholic Church. What that means is that Vatican officials are slower to make the kinds of public statements that most American Catholics want, and when they do make them they are tentative and halfhearted. It's not that they don't feel bad for the victims, but they think the clamor for them to apologize is fed by other factors that they don't want to capitulate to.

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."[60]


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 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.[87] 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 to the Ordinary of the place or to the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office, or at least promising seriously to do so.[88]


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 "to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants".[89] According to De delictis gravioribus, the letter sent on 18 May 2001 by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,[90] Crimen Sollicitationis was in force until May 2001[dubious ].[90][91][92]


On April 30, Pope 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.'"[7] In the letter, Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments), "§1 Reservation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is also extended to a delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years. §2 One who has perpetrated the delict mentioned in §1 is to be punished according to the gravity of the offense, not excluding dismissal or deposition."[93] In other words, the CDF was given a broader mandate to address the sex abuse cases only from 2001.[94] All priestly sex crimes cases were to be placed under the CDF which, in most cases, would authorize the bishops to conduct trials themselves.

The "Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations" explain briefly the procedures which have been derived from the 1983 Code of Canon Law and put in place since April 30 (the same day).[95][96] Among the points made:

  • Every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest is investigated by the local diocese and, if there is even a “semblance of truth” the case is referred to the Vatican CDF. “The local bishop always retains power to protect children by restricting the activities of any priest in his diocese.”
  • Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.
  • The CDF may authorise the local bishop to try the case. If a priest (who has the right of appeal to the CDF) is found guilty, a number of canonical penalties are possible, including dismissal from the clerical state. “The question of damages can also be treated directly during these procedures.”
  • Some cases can be referred directly to the Pope, who can issue a decree of dismissal from the priesthood ex officio.
  • Other disciplinary measures short of dismissal are available where the priest has undertaken to live a life of prayer and penance, but he can be dismissed if he breaks the conditions imposed.
  • The CDF continues to update the 2001 law (Motu Proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis tutela) in the light of special faculties granted to the CDF by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In May, in line with the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, a letter from the CDF was sent to the Catholic bishops.[97]


The Vatican instituted reforms to prevent future United States abuse by requiring background checks for all church employees who have contact with children.[68] Since then, in the USA alone, over 2 million volunteers and employees; 52,000 clerics; 6,205 candidates for ordination have had their backgrounds evaluated.[83]

In June, the USCCB established the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People", a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. (More details in the Episcopal Responses section above.)


Pope John Paul II stated that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[98]

In April, 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.[7]


In June, a Louisville, Kentucky lawyer William McMurry filed suit against the Vatican[99] 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 August 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 immunity from prosecution as head of state of the Holy See.[100] Some have claimed that this immunity was granted after intervention by then US President George W. Bush.[101] The Department of State "recognize[d] and allow[ed] the immunity of Pope Benedict XVI from this suit."[102] See pope#International position for information on head-of-state immunity of a pope.


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?"[103]

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 nonetheless 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."[7]


In April, during a visit to the United States Pope Benedict, admitted that he was "deeply ashamed" of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has devastated the American church. Benedict pledged that pedophiles would not be priests in the Roman Catholic Church.[104] Pope Benedict also said he is ashamed for child abuse scandal in Australia.[citation needed]

In November the United States Court of Appeals in Cincinnati denied the Vatican's claim of sovereign immunity and allowed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church government by three men who claim they were sexually abused as children by priests in the Louisville, Ky., USA archdiocese to proceed. The Vatican did not appeal the ruling.[105][106]


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.[107]

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."[108]

However, Margaret Smith and Karen Terry, two researchers who worked on the John Jay Report, cautioned against equating the high incidence of abuse by priests against boys with homosexuality, calling it an oversimplification and “an unwarranted conclusion”, as “participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.”[109][110] Tomasi's 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.[111]

The empirical research shows that sexual orientation does not affect the likelihood that people will abuse children.[112][113][114] Many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children.[112]


In April 2010, in response to extensive negative publicity and criticism of the Pope, the Vatican entered what the Associated Press called "full damage control mode".[115] Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, during a visit to Chile, linked the scandal to homosexuality.[116] In response to widespread criticism of that statement, Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi said Bertone's statement went outside the remit of church authorities while maintaining that "the statement was aimed at 'clarifying' Cardinal Bertone's remarks and should not be seen as the Holy See 'distancing' itself from them." He also noted that 10 per cent of the cases concerned paedophilia in the "strict sense" and the other 90 per cent concerned sex between priests and adolescents.[117] Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, said the continuing criticism of Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican in handling the clerical sex abuse crisis is part of a media campaign to sell newspapers.[118] The Pope issued a statement that the "Church must do penance for abuse cases".[119]

Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna explained in an interview with the Italian newspaper "Avvenire":[93][94] "Between 1975 and 1985 I do not believe that any cases of pedophilia committed by priests were brought to the attention of our Congregation. Moreover, following the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there was a period of uncertainty as to which of the "delicta graviora" were reserved to the competency of this dicastery. Only with the 2001 "Motu Proprio" did the crime of pedophilia again become our exclusive remit... In the years (2001–2010) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had "considered accusations concerning around three thousand cases of diocesan and religious priests, which refer to crimes committed over the last fifty years."

In July 2010 the Vatican issued a document to clarify their position. They doubled the length of time after the 18th birthday of the victim that clergymen can be tried in a church court and to streamline the processes for removing pedophile priests.[120][121][122] However the new rules are less strict than those already in place in the United States and lack the clarity that pedophilia is a civil offense of the existing rules there.[121][123]


On May 16, 2011 the Vatican published new guidelines, drawn up by Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, on dealing with the clergy sexual abuse cases.[124] The guidelines tell the bishops and heads of Catholic religious orders worldwide to develop "clear and coordinated" procedures for dealing with the sexual abuse allegation by May 2012.[125] The guidelines instruct the bishops to cooperate with the police and respect the relevant local laws in investigating and reporting allegations of sexual abuse by the clergy to the civic authorities, but do not make such reporting mandatory. The guidelines also reinforce bishops' exclusive authority in dealing with abuse cases. The recommendations do not have the status of church law and do not provide any specific enforcement mechanisms. Victims advocacy groups criticized the new guidelines as insufficient and not going far enough.[126][127]

Criticisms of church responses

While the Church in the United States claims to have addressed the issue, some disagree. As Mark Honigsbaum from The Guardian put it in 2006, "...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.[128]

In 2010, BBC reported that the latest research by experts indicate that Catholic priests may be no more likely than others to abuse. However, a major cause of the scandal was the cover-ups and other alleged shortcomings in the way the church has dealt with the abuses.[129] Particularly, the actions of Catholic bishops in responding to allegations of clerical abuse came under harsh criticism.[130]

In September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI lamented that the Roman Catholic Church had not been vigilant enough or quick enough in responding to the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy[131] A representative of SNAP, a group representing abuse victims criticized the pope's remarks as "disingenuous" because, in her opinion, the Church had in fact been "prompt and vigilant" in concealing the scandal.[131]

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."[132]

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.[5]

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.[5]

Late Bishop Manuel D. Moreno of Tucson, Arizona, USA repeatedly attempted to have two local abusive priests defrocked and disciplined, pleading unsuccessfully in a letter of April 1997 with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to have one of them, who was first suspended in 1990 and convicted by the church in 1997 of five crimes including sexual solicitation in the confessional, defrocked. The two were finally defrocked in 2004.[133] Bishop Moreno had been heavily criticized for failing to take action until details of his efforts became public.

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." [5]

Criticism of secrecy among bishops

It was revealed that some bishops had facilitated compensation payments to victims on condition that the allegations remained secret.[134] 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.[134]

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".[57]

In April 2010, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins wanted to prosecute the Pope for crimes against humanity due to what they see as his role in intentionally covering up abuse by priests.[135][136] In a CNN intervew a few days later, however, Dawkins declined to discuss the international crime law courts definition of crime against humanity, saying it is a difficult legal question.[137]

On 22 April 2010, a lawsuit was filed in the Milwaukee Federal Court by an anonymous "John Doe 16" against the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI. The plaintiff accused Ratzinger and others of having covered up abuse cases to avoid scandal to the detriment of the concerned children.[138]

In February 2011, two German lawyers initiated charges against Pope Benedict XVI at the International Criminal Court. As one of the reasons for the charges they referred also to the "strong suspicion" that Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, covered up the sexual abuse of children and youths and protected the perpetrators.[139]

Internal division became public, with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn accusing Cardinal Angelo Sodano of blocking Ratzinger’s investigation of a high-profile case in the mid 1990s.[140]

In the case of the French bishop Pierre Pican, who did not denounce an abusive priest before trial and as a consequence was sentenced to jail, the retired Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos wrote a letter to support Pican in his decision. Exposed to heavy critiques Hoyos, claimed to have had the approval of Pope John Paul II.[141][142] In 2011 Hoyos was heavily criticized again. This time the Congregation for the Clergy was blamed of having opposed in 1997 to the newly adapted rules of the Irish bishops, demanding the denouncement of every abusive priest to the police. The Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin described the cooperation with the Congregation for the Clergy as "disastrous".[143]

Criticism of secrecy in Vatican proceedings

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, said that 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 that "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".[144]

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.[145] Lawyers for some of those making abuse allegations claimed that the document demonstrated a systematic conspiracy to conceal such crimes.[146] 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.[147]

Media Coverage

BBC documentary in 2006

A documentary entitled Sex Crimes and the Vatican, produced by a victim of clerical sex abuse for the BBC in 2006, included the claim that all allegations of sex abuse are to be sent to the Vatican rather than the civil authorities, and that "a secret church decree called 'Crimen sollicitationis' ... imposes the strictest oath of secrecy on the child victim, the priest dealing with the allegation, and any witnesses. Breaking that oath means instant banishment from the Catholic Church - excommunication."[148] The documentary quoted the 2005 Ferns Report: "A culture of secrecy and fear of scandal that led bishops to place the interests of the Catholic Church ahead of the safety of children".

Canon lawyer Thomas Doyle, who was included in the documentary as supporting the picture that it presented, later wrote with regard to the 1962 Crimen sollicitations and the 2001 De delictis gravioribus, and the Church's formal investigation into charges of abuse: "There is no basis to assume that the Holy See envisioned this process to be a substitute for any secular legal process, criminal or civil. It is also incorrect to assume, as some have unfortunately done, that these two Vatican documents are proof of a conspiracy to hide sexually abusive priests or to prevent the disclosure of sexual crimes committed by clerics to secular authorities."[149] However, two years later in 2008 Doyle said of attempts to reform the Catholic Church that it was like "trudging through what can best be described as a swamp of toxic waste".[150]

The Church was reluctant to hand over to the civil authorities information about the Church's own investigations into charges. In the BBC documentary, Rick Romley, a district attorney who initiated an investigation of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, stated that "the secrecy, the obstruction I saw during my investigation was unparalleled in my entire career as a was so difficult to obtain any information from the Church at all." He reported archives of documents and incriminating evidence pertaining to sex abuse that were kept from the authorities, which under the law could not be subpoenaed. "The Church fails to acknowledge such a serious problem but more than that, it is not a passiveness but an openly obstructive way of not allowing authorities to try to stop the abuse within the Church. They fought us every step of the way."[148]

Criticisms of media coverage


Some critics of media coverage claimed there has been an excessive focus on Catholic incidences of abuse[151] and that equal or greater levels of child sexual abuse in secular contexts or other religious groups have been ignored or given minimal coverage.[152]

According to Philip Jenkins (1995), a professor at Pennsylvania State University, the emphasis upon sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy is a result of a shift in media coverage beginning during the 1980s. As a result, the image of the “pedophile priest” (Jenkins, 1996) was created and endorsed by the media and special interest groups in order to further their causes. While the media has portrayed this “crisis” as being centered solely in the Catholic Church, Jenkins offered evidence through the citation of liability insurance that illustrates that there were several hundred cases of sexual abuse involving non-Catholic clergy.[153]

United States

In the spring of 2002, the Christian Science Monitor reported on the results of national surveys by Christian Ministry Resources and concluded: “Despite headlines focusing on the priest pedophile problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant, and most of the alleged abusers are not clergy or staff, but church volunteers.”[154]

Some commentators, such as journalist Jon Dougherty, have argued that media coverage of the issue has been excessive, given that the same problems plague other institutions, such as the US public school system, with much greater frequency.[155][156][157]

Tom Hoopes, then National Catholic Register executive editor, observed: "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."[158]

George Weigel, the Chair of Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, District of Columbia, noted: "In the United States alone, there are reportedly some 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse... According to other recent studies, 2 percent of sex abuse offenders were Catholic priests—a phenomenon that spiked between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s but seems to have virtually disappeared... [Yet] the sexual abuse story in the global media is almost entirely a Catholic story, in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as the epicenter of the sexual abuse of the young."[159]

In May 2010, former United States senator from New York Alfonse M. D’Amato wrote to the New York Times, "As a Catholic, I am appalled at the now-daily assaults by the liberal media against the church.... To simply reject out of hand the church’s extensive and intense program to heal and correct suggests the possibility of an anti-Catholic agenda more concerned with Catholic teachings than with child abuse."[160]

Claims of inaccuracy

In March 2002, Philip Jenkins complained in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "'Pedophilia' is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty, but the vast majority of clergy misconduct cases involve priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often 16 or 17 years old."[161]

United States

On March 24, 2010, a report by the New York Times cited the Fr. Murphy case to accuse Pope Benedict XVI of a cover-up while he was head of the CDF in 1996.[162]

However Father Thomas Brundage, the judicial vicar who presided at the Church's internal discipline trial of the case, stated that he has been inaccurately quoted in the New York Times and more than 100 other newspapers and on-line periodicals. He added that "on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial." [163]

The New York Times article apparently used an incorrect translation of the document, according to Paolo Rodari of the Italian newspaper Il Foglio: "The computer-generated English version would support the NYT’s allegations against Bertone and Ratzinger, but that same conclusion is not possible if a correct review of the sources is done." In the English version used by the NYT, not only were some passages omitted, but frequently the contrary was said.[164]

Director of Apologetics and Evangelization for Catholic Answers Jimmy Akin also pointed out, "Back in 1996 the CDF did not have a mandate to handle cases of sexual abuse by priests... The reason that Weakland notified the CDF was not because the abuse of minors was involved but because the abuse of the sacrament of confession was involved." [165]

In April 2010, there were reports of a letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985, in which he allegedly dismissed a request to laicize a Father Stephen Kiesle, a California priest accused of molesting boys. The Vatican responded that "At this stage, Father Kiesle was already dismissed from pastoral duties during the investigation, and he had no contact with any parishioners or children."[166]

The Australian transport planning academic Paul Mees wrote, "...Kiesle had already been reported to the police, convicted and sentenced. After completing his sentence, Kiesle left the priesthood and wrote to the CDF asking to be formally defrocked."[167]


According to Crikey, The Age of March 19 reported that the Vienna Boys Choir “has been caught up in accusations that pedophile priests systematically abused their choristers.” On the same day, The Australian reported that “the crisis over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has intensified” as a result of the choir scandal. However, once it became apparent that the Vienna Boys Choir is a private organisation, and "the complaints of abuse were made against teachers and older choristers, not priests.... the media dropped the story: the choristers’ suffering ceased to be interesting without a church angle... no apologies, retractions or Media Watch denunciations."[167]

Debate over causes

Seminary training

Inappropriate seminary training was discussed as one of the reasons for the admission of people with sexual deviations or paraphilias to priesthood.[144]

Declining standards in prevailing culture

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.[168] 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.[169] former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum said the same thing:

It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning "private" moral matters such as alternative lifestyles. Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.[170]

Santorum also agreed with Rush Limbaugh summary that it was "no surprise that the center of the Catholic Church abuse took place in very liberal, or perhaps the nation's most liberal area, Boston." Santorum reiterated his broader theme of a cultural connection, saying that it is "no surprise that the culture affects people's behavior. [...] the liberal culture — the idea that [...] sexual inhibitions should be put aside and people should be able to do whatever they want to do, has an impact on people and how they behave."

Rise in reporting

Others[who?] have asserted 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.[171]

Supply and demand theory

It has been argued that shortage of priests[172] 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.[citation needed]

Distinction between pedophilia and ephebophilia

In Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, Cimbolic & Cartor (2006) noted that because of the large share of post-pubescent male minors among cleric victims there is need to further study the differential variables related to ephebophile versus pedophile offenders.[173] Cartor, Cimbolic & Tallon (2008) found that 6 percent of the cleric offenders in the John Jay Report are pedophiles, 32 percent ephebophiles, 15 percent 11 & 12 year olds only (both male and female), 20 percent indiscriminate, and 27 percent mildly indiscriminate.[174] They also found distinct differences between the pedophile and ephebophile groups. They reported that there may be “another group of offenders who are more indiscriminate in victim choice and represent a more heterogeneous, but still a distinct offender category” and suggested further research to determine “specific variables that are unique to this group and can differentiate these offenders from pedophile and ephebophile offenders” so as to improve the identification and treatment of both offenders and victims.[174]

Celibacy theory

Opinion seems 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.

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."[175]

On 11 March 2010, Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, said that 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.[144] The theologian Hans Küng had made the same assertion.[citation needed]

However 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. 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. 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[176] or of schoolteachers.[177] Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said, "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others." Insurance companies that cover all denominations, such as Guide One Center for Risk Management, which has more than 40,000 church clients, do not charge Catholic churches higher premiums than other clients.[178]

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."[179]

Feminist theory

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.[144]

Impact of psychology and psychiatry

Some bishops and psychiatrists have asserted that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[180] Dr. Thomas Plante of Stanford University and Santa Clara University wrote on that issue: "Almost all the cases coming to light today are cases from 30 and 40 years ago. We did not know much about pedophilia and sexual abuse in general back then. In fact, the vast majority of the research on sexual abuse of minors didn't emerge until the early 1980's. So, it appeared reasonable at the time to treat these men and then return them to their priestly duties. In hindsight, this was a tragic mistake."[4] Robert S. Bennett, the Washington attorney who headed the National Review Board's research committee, named "too much faith in psychiatrists" as one of the key problems concerning Catholic sex abuse cases.[181] About 40% of the abusive priests had received counseling before being reassigned.[182]

Homosexuality theory

According to the John-Jay-Report 80.9% of the alleged abuse victims in the United States were male.[17] This led some commentators, like William Donohue, to conclude: "The conventional wisdom maintains there is a pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church; I maintain it has been a homosexual crisis all along."[183] This however was judged as an “unwarranted assumption”. As Margaret Smith, a John Jay College criminologist who worked on the report, replied: “The majority of the abusive acts were homosexual in nature. That participation in homosexual acts is not the same as sexual identity as a gay man.”[184]

Abuse in literature, 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. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Ed West has asserted that Kathy Beirne's story is "largely invented" according to Kathy's Real Story, a book by Hermann Kelly, a Derry born journalist on the Irish Daily Mail and former editor of The Irish Catholic.[185]


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 sexual abuse and primarily focused on one priest and his crimes, it however also showed the lengths the Catholic Church would go to in order to cover up the many reports of sexual abuse.

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


"Altered Boy" off of Exodus's album, Shovel Headed Kill Machine, speaks against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. "I'm Not Jesus" by Apocalyptica, featuring singer Corey Taylor is about a former victim of Catholic sex abuse. The abuse also inspired Billy Talent to write their song Devil in a Midnight Mass.

See also

Church related
Vatican documents
Church prevention efforts
Cardinals and abuse cases
  • Bernard Cardinal Law
  • Roger Cardinal Mahony


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