In 1984, the first year of his assignment to the Boston diocese, Cardinal Bernard Law approved the transfer of Father John J. Geoghan to St. Julia’s parish in Weston, Massachusetts, despite substantial evidence that Geoghan had sexually abused children during previous assignments. Geoghan had been treated several times for molesting boys and had been removed from at least two parishes for sexually abusing children.
In 1989 Geoghan was forced to take sick leave after complaints that he was again sexually abusing children and, once again, he was treated and returned to the parish. Unfortunately, he continued to abuse children until 1993, when he was finally removed from parish duty. Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people have come forward with allegations that the former priest fondled or raped them in incidences spanning three decades. However, not until 1998 did the church actually remove Geoghan from the priesthood. Finally, in February 2002, Geoghan was sentenced to ten years in prison for sexually abusing a ten-year-old boy.
Allegations of a cover-up by Cardinal Law and the Catholic Church did not become a national controversy, however, until January 6, 2002, when the Boston Globe ran the following headline on its front page: “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.” In the months that followed, the national media reported a stream of cases that linked Catholic priests to child sexual abuse. By April 2002 at least 177 priests had been removed from their duties. One priest, Father Don Rooney, committed suicide after being accused of abusing a young female parishioner twenty-two years earlier. News reports also revealed that by the mid-1990s the church faced more than two hundred lawsuits concerning allegations of sexual abuse that cost the church $400 million in settlements, legal fees, and medical expenses for abuse victims.
In response to the scandal, Catholic officials denied allegations that they had attempted to hide child sexual abuse, and American bishops tried to depict the problem as one blown out of proportion by the media. According to Mark Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “There is no cover-up. People are confusing protecting the privacy of some individuals involved with the view that there’s been persistent criminal conduct by the leadership of the church.” However, outraged clergy and parishioners disagreed. According to Father Gary Hayes, president of the group Linkup: Survivors of Clergy Abuse and himself a victim of abuse by two priests while a teenager, “while individual bishops and dioceses have responded well to this crisis, the church as a whole has responded with arrogance, defiance, ignorance, and indifference . . . the real problem is that we have a hierarchy more interested in protecting its image than the innocence of its children.”
What surprised most people was not that some priests sexually abused children, but that the church knew of patterns of child sexual abuse by some of its priests yet continued to allow these men access to children. Catholic clergy and laity alike began to question the way the church had historically handled cases of child sexual abuse. As the scandal began to unfold, further evidence emerged supporting the allegations that the American church hierarchy was at best ignorant of how to deal with child sexual abuse and at worst actively covering up the problem. The national media investigation that followed the exposé was the first time many Americans had heard about the extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In fact, child sexual abuse had been occurring at least since the beginning of the twentieth century. (Many believe such abuse has been occurring throughout the history of the Catholic Church, but there is no evidence to substantiate these allegations.) Before the late 1970s, however, that fact was not generally known because church leaders managed clerical offenders discreetly, usually transferring them from their parishes without much publicity. Sometimes the church required that offending priests take a retreat or receive therapy, but priests were rarely reported to authorities or defrocked. Also during this time and into the 1980s, when parishioners complained to church leaders of child sexual abuse, they were often mistreated by church leaders, who often ignored or dealt with them as if somehow they had invited the abuse. In consequence, parishioners usually let the matter drop without taking further action. Not only did the church seem willing to conceal the problem from public view, the public appeared to be disinterested in the weaknesses, shortcomings, and even criminal behavior of religious leaders. Moreover, the media generally cooperated with the church in avoiding scandal.
However, public attitudes began to shift during the 1970s, a result of economic, social, and political changes. The women’s movement, for example, brought new issues into the public eye; one of these issues was child sexual abuse. By the early 1980s, the civil courts began to hear cases alleging malpractice and negligence by respected professional groups and associations that did not effectively respond to allegations of child sexual abuse. In this new atmosphere, priests could be sued for the damages resulting from sexual liaisons with parishioners and the sexual abuse of children, and church leaders who were aware or should have been aware of these occurrences could be accused of negligence for permitting such behavior.
Criminal allegations against clergy also began to be brought in the 1980s. Before that time, priests, ministers, members of religious orders, and church workers had rarely been prosecuted in cases of child sexual abuse because neither victims nor church leaders reported such abuse to the authorities. However, the pervasive sexual abuse committed by Father Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the nationwide publicity that accompanied the scandal, resulted in church leaders being forced to report the more serious cases of child sexual abuse and gave some victims and their families the courage to pursue such cases on their own. Gauthe was suspected of molesting children as early as 1972. On several occasions, however, church authorities aware of his activities responded simply by moving him to new parishes where the molestations would recommence. Over twenty years, Gauthe molested up to one hundred boys in four parishes. In 1984 a number of parents of abused boys brought civil charges against the diocese over Gauthe’s activities, and later that same year, the state filed criminal charges. Gauthe was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. In 1998 Gauthe won early parole for good conduct from a sympathetic Catholic judge. Unfortunately, within a few months he was arrested for molesting an underage boy and placed on probation.
The Gauthe scandal convinced many that church leaders had conducted a long-term cover-up of the sexual proclivities of some of its clergy. Media focus on a particular priest offender or on a particularly troubled diocese led to new allegations against other men or other church organizations in different parts of the country. The burgeoning number of sexual abuse scandals evoked deep concern among some Catholic observers, and in 1985 a confidential report entitled “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner” was submitted to the Catholic hierarchy. The authors were Gauthe’s attorney, Ray Mouton, and two priests, Thomas P. Doyle and Michael R. Peterson. Doyle was a canon lawyer working at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., and Peterson was the founder of St. Luke’s Institute, which provided therapy for sexually troubled priests. In view of the escalating scandal and the multimilliondollar legal actions, all three urged Catholic leaders to take strong and effective action to deal with the impending crisis.
In the autumn of 1985, U.S. bishops discussed the report in secret sessions at their semiannual gathering. However, the bishops would only commit to deal with cases of child sexual abuse as they arose in each diocese. Creating a nationwide church policy on child sexual abuse, the bishops believed, ran against the essential autonomy of each bishop in his diocese. When Doyle spoke publicly about the report and the problem of clergy child sexual abuse, many bishops were offended, and Doyle’s career as a Vatican representative ended.
The American clergy sexual abuse problem was subsumed by a new wave of scandals, which broke outside the United States. Clergy child sexual abuse scandals emerged in Australia, Austria, Canada, Ireland, and Italy. In the spring of 1989, for example, in the province of Newfoundland in Canada, attention shifted to physical and sexual abuse committed by members of the Christian Brothers Congregation against teenage boys in the Mount Cashel boys home in Saint John’s. In this case, allegations had originally surfaced in 1975, and in a widespread state-church cover-up, certain brothers had been permitted to leave the province without facing criminal proceedings. The story remained in the headlines for several years.
By the 1990s the public was learning that it was not only possible, but also commonplace for Catholic priests, officially celibate, to be sexually active, and for church officials to turn a blind eye when revelations of child sexual abuse came to the surface. Despite the public’s outrage, the 1985 report to American bishops, and growing evidence that some Catholic clergy were sexually active, American Catholic Church leaders continued to deal with clergy child sexual abuse as it had for decades and failed to develop a formal response to the clergy child sexual abuse problem.
Commentators offer a number of reasons why the Catholic Church hierarchy failed to implement effective policies to deal with child sexual abuse. Some contend that because the church views sexual offences as moral failures, it takes the position that if offenders repent, they should be forgiven and provided counseling. Once rehabilitated, offenders should then be transferred to another position. Unfortunately, many ob- servers argue, this philosophy kept church leaders ignorant of the fact that sexual abuse can quickly become compulsive—it cannot be assumed that even with extensive therapy priests will never abuse again. Many experts claim that abusing priests must be prohibited from all contact with minors. For some this means defrocking offending priests; for others it means removing them from duties that would bring them into contact with children.
Other analysts argue that church officials are only concerned with the good name of the church and avoiding or limiting legal liability for the harm done to victims. Church officials, these analysts argue, confuse loyalty to the institutional church and its ministers with loyalty to the people of God. According to Laurie Goodstein, a columnist for the New York Times, when the Boston Globe reported the clergy abuse scandal in the Boston diocese in January 2002, the bishops “behaved more like Senators or CEOs engaged in damage control than as moral teachers engaged in the gospel.” Observers such as Goodstein maintain that to avoid accountability, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church shifts blame for the child sexual abuse crisis to other issues. Church officials, they claim, blame the secular press, homosexuality in the priesthood, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s rather than take action to address the problem. To solve the child sexual abuse problem, many analysts maintain, the hierarchy must emphasize compassion for victims over protection of the church’s image.
Another reason why child sexual abuse flourished within the church is that there is too little oversight over the bishops, who have too much power, according to many commentators. Nobel Peace Prize–winning cardiologist James E. Muller claims that “the core of the [child sexual abuse] problem is centralized power, with no voice of the faithful.” Some suggest that one change the church hierarchy could make to help prevent future child sexual abuse problems would be to give the laity more say in church policies. Muller argues for a lay power structure at the local, national, and global level to represent the voice of the 1 billion Catholic lay people in discussions with parish priests, bishops, and the pope.
Unfortunately, after years of obeisance to church authority, many Catholics find it difficult to express their dissatisfaction with the response of the church hierarchy to the crisis of clergy child sexual abuse. Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., son of the late U.S. House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, says he had struggled with his own fear when he left his position as Cardinal Law’s adviser to become a supporter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group founded in February 2002 in response to the child sexual abuse scandal. “I wasn’t raised to be the kind of Catholic who tells bishops or popes something they might not want to hear,” said O’Neill. “But all that made the abuse and the cover-up possible must change in this church. I don’t think anything else will do.”
People continue to debate whether the Catholic Church has done enough to protect children from clergy who sexually abuse children and whether the laity should have a greater voice in church policy on this and other matters. The authors in At Issue: Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church offer several perspectives on the nature and scope of the problem of clergy child sexual abuse as well as possible solutions.