Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal

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In the late 20th century, and especially at the turn of the 21st, the Catholic Church in several countries was confronted with a series of allegations concerning sexual abuse of children under the legal age of consent ¹ by Catholic clergy and religious.

The controversy was at its most famous when it hit the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, several countries, including Canada, had already faced similar controversies with high-profile cases such as the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Duplessis Orphans in the province of Quebec.

Well-publicized charges that some members of the Church in certain instances deliberately covered up such crimes have fueled criticism of the institution and its leadership. While not every allegation stood up to scrutiny, some did, resulting in apologies and restitution by the Church and the criminal prosecution of those who engaged in the acts. It should be noted that the Roman Catholic Church doctrine has long considered the sexual abuse of children as mortally sinful.


Threefold allegations

The allegations concerned:

1. The sexual abuse by some religious and secular clergy of children with whom they had contact in the community;
2. The sexual abuse of children in some religious-run houses, orphanages and schools, by both clergy and laity;
3. The policy of Catholic clergy in dealing with the abuse, namely a failure to report what were criminal acts to the local police, and efforts to pressure the victims, their families and independent witnesses into not reporting the incidents to civil authorities. Canon law (internal church law) was often given priority over secular criminal law, an action which led some Catholic Church leaders to be accused of "perverting the course of justice", itself a criminal act. (Note: the fight between Church Law and Civil Law's jurisdiction over the clergy is a centuries-old political struggle.)

While not every allegation stood up to scrutiny, some did, resulting in the criminal prosecution of those who engaged in the acts. Senior church leaders, including the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law (USA) and Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns (Ireland) resigned over their mishandling of cases in their dioceses and in particular their failure to report incidents to police. In the aftermath, some national hierarchies introduced new rules of childcare and in the reporting of sex abuse allegations. Nonetheless, a few dioceses experienced a drop in numbers of Catholics attending weekly Mass.

Abuse in the community

The largely unrestricted contact clergyman had with children (through teaching in schools and parish links with families) meant that a child molester in the priesthood was a serious danger to children. In part, this was because priests and religious officials and persons across all religions were viewed as trustworthy individuals, whom families allowed to get close to them. The clergy were involved in every aspect of their community's and its families' lives; from baptising the young to the weekly celebration of Mass, giving children First Communion to marrying couples and being the celebrant of their funerals.

Apart from direct family connections, many Catholic families sent their children to Catholic schools, where Catholic priests either taught as teachers or visited regularly as the local parish priest or curate. Participation in the Catholic faith involved a close association with, and proximity to, priests. While the vast majority of priests never sought to abuse a single child, the small minority who did had easy access to children.

One of the worst examples of a clergyman using his links with families to facilitate the abuse of children occurred in Ireland, where one priest ² systematically raped and sexually abused hundreds of children between 1945 and 1990 . The scandal over the Fr. Brendan Smyth case, and the systematic obstruction of justice in his case by the Norbertine Order, caused immense damage to the credibility of the Catholic church in Ireland, as did other cases, such as a parish priest, Fr. Jim Grennan, who abused children as they prepared for First Communion, and Fr. Sean Fortune, who committed suicide before his trial for the rape of children. The abuse by Grennan and by others in the Diocese of Ferns in south-east Ireland led to the resignation of the local bishop, Brendan Comiskey while similar scandals in the Archdiocese of Dublin severely damaged the reputation of its archbishop, Cardinal Connell. Although there were other social factors at play, some have argued that the ten year drop in the percentage of Irish people attending weekly Mass (63% to 48%) was related to these events.

Abuse in institutions

Like most religions Catholicism has a direct involvement in other areas beyond parish work. Its many religious orders operate schools, hospitals, orphanages, reformatory schools and are involved in social work. Some of these institutions have been associated with allegations of sexual abuse of children. While the allegations made apply to only a minority of institutions and a minority of people working in that minority of institutions, enquiries have established the existence of both abuse and of a failure of the leaderships running the institutions, when confronted with evidence of abuse, to act in the best interests of the children or in accordance with the criminal law in their jurisdiction. Governmental institutions have also been heavily criticised for neglecting to adequately ensure that children placed in those institutions by agents of the state were properly looked after.

Some of the most serious allegations of abuse were made against clergy who either worked in the institutions or who were allowed unlimited visitation rights and access to children. As with the secular clergy in parishes, the majority of allegations have resulted in criminal convictions.

Perhaps the most serious charges facing the church in the contemporary world relate to Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, a Catholic order of priests founded in Mexico in the 1940s. In the 1990s, Maciel was accused by nine former seminarians of his order with molestation. One subsequently retracted his accusation, saying that it was a plot intended to discredit the Legion. Maciel has always denied the accusations. However, he recently stepped down as head of the order. Whether this is due to the charges is hard to determine.

Flawed policies

Abusers moved from location to location

Some bishops have been especially heavily criticized for moving offending priests from parish to parish rather than seeking to have them stripped of their faculties. Many dioceses submitted priests guilty of child abuse for intensive psychotherapeutic treatment and assessment, with the priest only resuming parochial duties when the bishop was advised that it was safe for them to be so assigned.

In response to questions, defenders of bishops' actions suggest that in re-assigning priests for duty after treatment they were acting on the basis of the best medical advice then available. Critics have questioned whether bishops are necessarily able to form accurate judgments on the nature of the recovery of a priest.

Failure to report criminal acts to police

From a legal perspective, the single worst failure—other than the actual abuse of children—was the unwillingness of certain Church leaders to report the incidents directly to the police. This phenomenon occurred in every country with rare exceptions. This proved to have extremely negative consequences. The Norbertines, for example, knew not merely of Fr. Brendan Smyth's apparently pedophilic tendencies but also of allegations of sexually interfering with children from as early as 1945, yet it was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the two police forces in Ireland, the Garda Síochána and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were able to gather sufficient information to prosecute Smyth.

In May 2001, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (at that time prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and since made Pope Benedict XVI) sent a letter to all Catholic Bishops declaring that the Church's investigations into claims of child sex abuse claims were subject to the pontifical secret and were not to be reported to law enforcement. Abuse of the pontifical secret may lead to formal excommunication.

Allegations of systematic plots to conceal evidence

Reviewers of the Smyth case differ as to whether it was a deliberate plot to conceal the nature of his behaviour, or whether much of what happened involved complete incompetence by his superiors, the abbots of Kilnacrott Abbey, or perhaps a mixture of an institution presuming that what happened to its members was its own business, plus the complete incompetence of his superiors, who failed to grasp the human and legal consequences of the actions of a particularly manipulative child molester, who found ways to circumvent whatever restrictions the abbots placed on him. (Cardinal Daly, both as Bishop of Down and Connor (where some of the abuse took place) and later as Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh, is recorded as having been privately scathing at the Norbertine "incompetence".)

Motivated by a belief in an international Catholic conspiracy, a Louisville, Kentucky lawyer filed suit in June 2004 against the Vatican, alleging Roman participation in a cover-up of sexual abuse problems. Legal experts predict an unsuccessful outcome to this case, given the sovereignty of the Holy See and the lack of evidence of Vatican complicity.

Payments to victims

Some have even gone so far as to allege that Church members paid off victims of child abuse, either in settlement of compensation claims, or in order to prevent them reporting to the police. In the mid-1990s, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Connell of Dublin loaned money to a priest who had abused altar-boy Andrew Madden, which was then used to pay compensation to Madden and prevent Madden from reporting the abuse to the police. Connell later claimed never to have paid money to a victim, insisting that he had simply loaned money to a priest who just happened to use the money to pay off his victim.

Implications of the scandal

Celibacy and the scandal

Critics have suggested that celibacy among the Catholic priesthood offers a means by which priests with sexual urges that are aimed towards children rather than adults can hide those tendencies, their lack of sexual feelings towards adults being unnoticeable in a completely unmarried clergy.

There have been suggestions that child molesters deliberately enter the Catholic clergy due to the "cover" its celibacy provides, and due to the fact that clergy have frequent access to children; these ideas, however, remain unproven. Though child molestation rings have been found, the fact that there is no noticeable difference between the level of child-oriented sexual activity among the unmarried Catholic clergy and the married clergy of other denominations suggests that child molesters as a group have not specially targeted the Catholic clergy for entry, though it seems likely that some child molesters have entered its ordained ministry as they have other ministries elsewhere.

There is no evidence whatsoever that child molestation is in any way related to celibacy itself. Some child abusers were themselves the victims of child abuse, as children, their sexual abuse tendencies being formed long before they reach the age of forming adult relationships. While some child abusers may prove incapable of forming stable adult relationships (though many do, producing the phenomenon of parents who abuse their children) their celibate status is not a cause of their abuse of children but a symptom of their sexual desires for sexual activity with children, not adults.

Seminary training

Clergy themselves have suggested their seminary training offered little to prepare them for a lifetime of celibate sexuality; a report submitted to the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1971, called The Role of the Church in the Causation, Treatment and Prevention of the Crisis in the Priesthood by Dr. Conrad Baars, a Dutch-born Catholic psychiatrist from Minnesota, and based on a study of 1500 priests, suggested that some clergy had "psychosexual" problems. It is a matter of speculation as to how much of the Catholic Church's mishandling of sex abuse cases was influenced by such problems.

In some countries in the aftermath of the crisis caused by the sex abuse allegations, the Church has begun reforming seminary training to provide candidates for the priesthood with training to deal with a life of celibacy and sexual abstention. Homosexuality within the clergy has also come under scrutiny, in large part due to the disproportionate number of abuse cases involving post-pubescent males. (See Ephebophilia.)

Other Catholic teachings, practices

The Catholic Church clearly teaches the sexual abuse of children to be gravely sinful. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church's list of moral offences, one finds:

"...any sexual abuse perpetrated by adults on children or adolescents entrusted to their care. The offense is compounded by the scandalous harm done to the physical and moral integrity of the young, who will remain scarred by it, all their lives; and the violation of responsibility for their upbringing." (CCC 2389).

In the New Testament, Jesus says: "[H]e that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6).

Despite these teachings, some critics have charged that specific doctrines or traditional practices in Catholicism contributed to the problem. Catholic teaching affirms that so long as the officiant has been validly ordained, his personal sins have no effect on the validity of the Masses, absolutions, baptisms, and other sacraments he has administered. The doctrine of apostolic succession makes valid ordinations and institutional affiliation the chief consideration in clerical status.

In other cases, traditional Catholics have made the charge that the Second Vatican Council fostered a climate that encouraged priests to abuse children. In the January 27, 2003 edition of Time Magazine, actor and traditional catholic Mel Gibson charged that "...Vatican II corrupted the institution of the church. Look at the main fruits: dwindling numbers and pedophilia." However abuse by priests was occurring long before the start of Vatican II.

It is also widely understood that Catholic clergy are in short supply, at least in the United States. The doctrines outlined above and this understaffing combine, it has been claimed, to make Catholic clergy extraordinary valuable human capital. It is alleged that the Catholic hierarchy acted to preserve this human capital and ensure that they were still available to supply priestly services, in the face of serious allegations that these priests were unfit for duty.

Others, however, disagree and believe that the Church's mishandling of the sex abuse cases merely reflected prevailing attitudes of the time towards such activity, in which the tendency was to suppress the information lest it cause scandal and a loss of trust in the institution, an approach reflected in the manner in which the media and secular organisations hid damaging information or ignored it; from the sexual promiscuity of leading politicians to domestic violence. They see the Church as having made horrendous but genuine mistakes, their leaders being out of touch with society's increasing demand for exposure and retribution.

Yet others—including non-Catholic academics such as Philip Jenkins—have observed that the Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by a secular media which they say fails to highlight similar sexual scandals in other religious groups, such as the Anglican Communion, various Protestant churches, and the Jewish and Islamic communities. The term paedophile priests, widely used in the media, implies a distinctly higher rate of child molesters within the Roman Catholic priesthood when in reality its 1.5–2% is no higher than any other segment of society and lower than many.

Episcopal resignations

Bishop Séan P. O'Malley, the Capuchin friar who replaced Law as archbishop, was forced to sell a good deal of valuable real estate and to close a number of churches in order to pay $120,000,000 in claims against the archdiocese.


Citing monetary concerns arising from impending trials on sex abuse claims, the Archdiocese of Portland filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 6, 2004, hours before two abuse trials were set to begin, becoming the first Catholic diocese to file for bankruptcy. If granted, bankruptcy would mean pending and future lawsuits would be settled in federal bankruptcy court. The archdiocese had settled more than one hundred previous claims for a sum of over $53 million. The filing seeks to protect parish assets, school money and trust funds from abuse victims: the archdiocese's contention is that parish assets are not the archdiocese's assets. Plaintiffs in the cases against the archdiocese have argued that the Catholic church is a single entity, and that the Vatican should be liable for any damages awarded in judgement of pending sexual abuse cases.

The Diocese of Tucson likewise filed bankruptcy in September, 2004, as has the Diocese of Spokane in December of that year. The Diocese of Tucson reached an agreement with its victims, which the bankruptcy judge approved June 11, 2005, specifying terms that included allowing the diocese reorganization to continue in return for a $22.2 million settlement.

Ferns Inquiry 2005

On 22 October 2005 a government-commissioned report compiled by a former Irish Supreme Court judge delivered a damning indictment of the handling of clerical sex abuse in the Irish diocese of Ferns. The report revealed over 100 cases of child sex abuse in the small diocese, involving a number of clergymen, including Monsignor Micheál Ledwidth, the former head of the National Catholic seminary, Maynooth College.

Among the facts were revealed were

  • the "inexplicable" failure of Bishop Donal Herlihy to exclude clearly unsuitable candidates from the priesthood;
  • his failure to report incidents of proven sexual abuse to the legal authorities and his failure to acknowledge that abusers needed to be kept from children;
  • the failure of his successor, Brendan Comiskey to report incidents of abuse and remove abusers from positions where they worked with children.

Among the cases revealed were

  • the rape of teenage girls on the altar of a church by one priest;
  • the use of blackmail by another priest to force children to perform sex acts on him;

The report was also highly critical of the failure of the Garda Siochána to properly investigate incidents reported, and in particular the disappearance of one file detailing serious incidents of clerical sex abuse. The local health authorities also failed to protect children even when aware of allegations.

There was however praise in subsequent debates and among survivors of abuse of the actions of the new Apostolic Administrator (acting bishop) for instituting wholesale reforms, including the toughest anti-abuse rules in any diocese in the Catholic Church, and also his willingness to hand over all files and all information to the inquiry. Victims' spokesman and himself one of the victims of one of the abusers, Colm O'Gorman praised the administrator and compared his actions with the inaction and incompetence of his predecessors.


1 The age of consent, that is, the age at which the law presumes a teenager has the physical, emotional and sexual maturity to make an informed adult decision to enter into sexual activity, differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from a low teenage in Italy and Spain to a mid to high teens age elsewhere, for example 16 in the United Kingdom, 17 in Ireland. (Some states also provide different ages of consent for homosexual boys as against heterosexual boys and girls.) Yet separately the law may specify a different age where a teenager ceases to be a child and becomes an adult. As a result, where a difference exists, it may be perfectly legal to have sex with a child where the individual, though still deemed a child in law, is above the age of consent specified in local legislation.

2 Paedophilia and child sex abuse are not always the same: a paedophile may practice sexual abstinence, and not everyone who sexually abuses a child is a paedophile.

3 Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0195145976

See also

Additional reading

  • Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2001). ISBN 0195145976

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