The decades-long Catholic priest child sex abuse crisis, explained

And why revelations are still emerging today. By Tara Isabella Sep 4, 2018, 7:10am EDT

Evening Prayer Service At New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral Led By Pope Francis

His story was one of thousands.

“It happened in the wee hours of the morning,” a Pennsylvania man wrote in a letter to the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2008, describing the moment he tried to take his own life. He’d spent the night drinking heavily, “which my doctors have explained may have induced an inescapable episodic flashback of sexual abuse, which has haunted me over the years.”

His alleged abuser, Rev. Richard Dorsch, was his childhood priest in Pittsburgh. The events he recalled took place throughout his childhood. According to the letter, Dorsch forced his victim — whose name has not been made public — to sexually stimulate him repeatedly, ignoring the child’s objections.

The diocese settled with the man quietly after his suicide attempt, paying for his mental health care. But in 2010, payments abruptly stopped. Two months later, the victim attempted suicide again. That time, he succeeded.

This story is just one account out of hundreds listed in a recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report. A 1,400-page document compiled over two years, the report implicated 300 priests in the sex abuse of over 1,000 minors across six of the state’s eight dioceses. (The other two, Philadelphia and Altoona–Johnstown, had been the subject of previous investigations that were no less damning.)

The report revealed that this abuse was made possible by a widespread, systematic cover-up from church leaders and other clergy. Instead of contacting law enforcement about allegations, senior church officials and bishops quietly reshuffled offending priests, typically putting them in positions where they would continue to have close contact with a new set of children. The highest-profile figure accused in participating in such a cover-up is Donald Wuerl, the current archbishop of Washington, DC.

The report and its fallout came during a summer of turmoil for the Catholic Church. First, there was the May revelation that Cardinal George Pell, among the highest-ranking members of the Vatican, faced charges of child sex abuse from decades ago in his native Australia. Then, there was the ousting of Father Theodore McCarrick, formerly the archbishop of Washington, DC, who allegedly committed sexual harassment and abuse against junior seminarians under his authority, as well as against two minors.

Then came the Pennsylvania revelations.

Three hundred abusers and over 1,000 victims, documented in 1,400 pages with stories no less harrowing than the one above. These are just the latest figures in a decades-long crisis, whose full extent may never be known. What has made these stories possible — and what has prevented them, in many cases, from being told until now — is a much wider story of an institution that has, over decades, repeatedly chosen secrecy and bureaucracy over transparency and accountability. It is the story of an institution that has not only failed to protect children from abusers, but has systematically allowed that abuse to continue, often with impunity, and has contributed to the victims’ suffering by repeatedly failing to contend with and take responsibility for its history.

Since 2002, the American Catholic Church — to say nothing of the church globally — has been contending with the sheer catastrophic scope and scale of the crisis. We know about thousands of cases of child sex abuse already. It is likely that thousands more are yet to emerge.

And while efforts taken by the Catholic Church in recent years have significantly reduced abuse since 2002, the fundamental problem remains: There is little to no centralized effort to document, publicize, or take accountability for the decades of systemic child sexual abuse.

But one thing’s for sure: It’s the victims whom the church has left behind.

Allegations of Catholic clerical sex abuse were intermittent through the 1990s

While cases of Catholic clerical sex abuse were reported by the media up to the 1990s, one-off instances here and there did not signal the truth: that the church was actually dealing with an internal crisis of systemic proportions.

One early accusation concerned Oregon priest Thomas Laughlin, who was removed from ministry in 1983 and spent a year in prison for misdemeanor sex abuse involving sexual contact with two minors. In 1985, Louisiana priest Gilbert J. Gauthe was convicted of molesting at least 39 children between 1972 and 1983.

In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër was forced to resign from his position as archbishop of Vienna after allegations of child sex abuse were made public, although he retained his title of cardinal and was allowed to continue in lower-profile church ministry almost until his death. And in 1998, 11 plaintiffs sued the Diocese of Dallas for failing to take action against Rudolph Kos, allowing him to molest minors throughout the 1980s. The plaintiffs were ultimately paid $31 million.

Each of these cases received a degree of media coverage. And victims slowly began to find one another. For example, in Chicago, Barbara Blaine started the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in 1988.

But the first widespread investigation into Catholic clerical sex abuse as a pattern occurred in the late 1990s, in Ireland. Much of the formative coverage of the Irish crisis was carried out by the team behind the 1999 television documentary States of Fear and the follow-up book, Suffer the Little Children by Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan. The documentary and book revealed what appeared to be a widespread culture of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at state-funded, Catholic-run orphanages and educational institutions, as well as an equally widespread cover-up by clergy and local law enforcement.

The Irish sexual abuse crisis was particularly severe, and it rocked the robustly Catholic country’s faith in a church that had been inextricable from Irish national identity. As Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote ahead of Pope Francis’s recentvisit there, “[Francis] will find a Catholic church not just falling to ruin, but in some respects beyond repair.”

The Boston Globe broke the scandal in the United States

Catholics learned that systemic child sex abuse by priests had also infiltrated American churches in 2002. That January, the Boston Globe published the results of several months of dogged investigative reporting about child sex abuse in the Boston area at the hands of clergy, which had been covered up by the church’s hierarchy over several decades. Journalists at the paper ultimately identified more than 70 Boston priests who had sexually abused children. (For reference, there were 1,678 priests in the Boston Archdiocese that year.)

The investigation was fraught with political difficulties. Boston was a heavily Catholic city — in 2000, 48 percent of Bostonians identified as Catholic. Law enforcement and journalists alike had traditionally been wary of running afoul of the Catholic Church. The Globe reporters later recalled being accused by readers of “anti-Catholic bias” in their reporting, and a feeling that there was little appetite for coverage that aired what seemed to be the church’s dirty laundry.

It was that very systemic culture of secrecy, the Globe found, that allowed abuse to thrive. The investigation found a staggering amount of complicity on the part of both the Boston church hierarchy and local law enforcement. Priests who had abused children would simply be reassigned to other parishes and face few legal or pastoral consequences. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials, reluctant to go up against the Catholic Church, would neglect allegations. When victims did come forward to church officials with allegations, they were often quietly paid off in exchange for their silence. In fact, several of the victims the Globe spoke with had already sought legal advice or gone to the church directly with their complaints, only to be paid to say nothing.

By and large, the Globe found, the church handled abuse cases in absolute secrecy. Individual dioceses throughout Boston paid off victims and sealed records, never making cases public. Priests did not face criminal charges. The avoidance of scandal — or any form of public outcry — often took precedence over ensuring the protection of children. Meanwhile, offending priests were treated as sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, rather than criminals who merited legal punishment. Instead, many priests were assigned special spiritual counseling or mandated therapy by their superiors, only to return, in many cases, to active ministry.

The highest-profile individual implicated in the scandal was Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, who was accused of participating in the cover-up.

Central to Law’s disgrace was the case of Rev. John J. Geoghan, who had featured heavily in the Globe’s reporting. Geoghan was defrocked by Pope John Paul II in 1998 after abusing at least 150 boys. He had been shuffled from parish to parish any time anyone made a complaint against him over the course of 30 years. Geoghan was eventually found guilty of indecent assault and battery for groping a child. He was sentenced to prison and murdered by a fellow inmate.

Law was directly responsible for some of Geoghan’s transfers, the Globe found, allowing him to continuously abuse children throughout the area. The lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful then alleged that Law knew about additional abusers and had in some cases outright lied in order to transfer them quietly to other parishes. Law quietly resigned, but he remained influential within the church until his death last year.

The American Catholic Church attempted to wrestle with the problem in the early 2000s

After the Globe’s reporting, victims of sex abuse began to come forward across the United States. Catholic priests and bishops throughout the country attempted to grapple with the problem as it became increasingly apparent Boston was just one slice of a national crisis.

In 2002, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops established a charter of procedures to deal with accused child sex abusers in the clergy, including a “zero tolerance” policy for accused abusers. The charter is officially known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, or the Dallas Charter, after the city in which it was ratified.

Most importantly, the Dallas Charter mandated that all allegations of child sex abuse by clergy be turned over to law enforcement. Every single diocese in the US, except for one in Lincoln, Nebraska, expressed compliance with the charter and submitted annual audits to the USCCB. Since the establishment of the charter, abuse allegations among priests across the country have declined (except in the Lincoln diocese, where rates remain largely unchanged).

Two years after the Dallas Charter was enacted, the USCCB commissioned a report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York that dug into the extent of abuse over the previous five decades in the US. The report, which remains the most comprehensive on the subject of clerical sex abuse, concluded that between 1950 and 2002, a staggering 10,667 people across the country accused 4,392 priests of child molestation. This represented about 4.3 percent of active American Catholic clergy during that time. (Some studies suggest this is on par with the rates of child sex abuse committed by the general population).

Only a tiny fraction of these priests, however, had ever been convicted in a court of law, according to the report. Just 252 priests were convicted of a crime, and 100 served time in prison. Instead, dioceses and parishes paid billions of dollars in settlements to accusers over several decades, securing secrecy over these cases. It meant priests would simply be transferred to new parishes, making a new set of families vulnerable to abuse without their knowledge. The John Jay report also concluded that the church hierarchy had systematically defended and protected priests, treating their offenses as sins that demanded repentance and forgiveness, rather than criminal prosecution.

More old allegations have trickled out in the past two decades

For many dioceses, 2002 marked a turning point. Strategies and policies that were put in place, like the Dallas charter, were largely effective, which the Pennsylvania grand jury report acknowledges. As Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, told Vox, “The policies put in place by the US bishops since 2002 have worked.”

A trickier issue, however, is how the church has dealt with the ongoing revelations of abuse prior to 2002. By and large, dioceses have remained unwilling to preemptively publish the names of alleged abusers, even those who have been removed from ministry for their actions.

Throughout the 2000s, however, various dioceses and archdioceses continued to settle privately with victims. The Catholic Church has paid over $3 billion to victims across the United States, and 19 dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy as a result. In 2007, for example, Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles authorized the payment of $660 million to 500 victims, who had brought allegations against 220 clergy members of the diocese.

The slow trickle of these revelations coincided with a wider decline in Catholic identity. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, a full 31 percent of Americans report being raised Catholic, yet just 20 percent consider themselves practicing. This is the largest drop-off for any single religious identity. Another study found that, in the period between 1985 and 2012, Catholic church attendance dropped from 52 to 29 percent.

While church attendance and affiliation has dropped across Christian denominations over the past two decades — albeit less so among white evangelicals — it’s nevertheless extremely likely that the abuse crisis has shaken ordinary Catholics’ faith in their church.

The Vatican’s response to the crisis has been mixed over the past two decades

One of the ongoing questions in the Catholic clerical sex abuse crisis is what the Vatican knew and for how long, which has never been adequately answered.

Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican official, recently accused Pope Francis of knowingly lifting Pope Benedict XVI-era sanctions on Cardinal McCarrick in 2013. He also claimed Francis was deferential to a so-called gay “network” in the Vatican that ignored abuse. The pope refuses to address these claims. Either way, the truth is more complicated and more difficult to ascertain. For one, Viganò’s assertion conflates consensual homosexual activity, sexual harassment, and pedophilia. More broadly, it does not address in any detail the decades of abuse that came from any other clerics around the globe or the veil of secrecy under which they were allowed to continue abusing children while remaining in ministry.

What we do know is that US archdioceses seem to have operated in many regards outside the oversight of the Vatican, and they rarely passed information about individual abuse cases up the ladder.

Benedict XVI, for example, reportedly told a bishop, “My authority ends at that [office] door,” referencing his limitations on effectively managing a bureaucratic church that in practice, if not in theory, operated largely autonomously. (Certainly, if Viganò’s assertion that Pope Benedict put sanctions on McCarrick is true, this could explain why McCarrick continued to appear in public in the United States during the period of the alleged sanctions.)

Given the Vatican’s culture of secrecy, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get an accurate sense of behind-the-scenes responses to the crisis. On the one hand, the Vatican’s denials could be a convenient way of passing the buck. On the other hand, it seems apparent that international archdioceses have, in many ways, operated on a day-to-day level independently from the curia.

At least as early as the 1960s, figures like Father Gerald Fitzgerald, head of an order called the Servants of the Paraclete that provided counseling for troubled priests, expressed concerns directly to the Vatican that pedophile priests were not being treated with appropriate seriousness. But it remains unclear whether the highest echelons of the Vatican knew about the problem, how much they knew, and when they learned of the extent of the problem.

The response from the Vatican, however, has been somewhat muted. Pope John Paul II was the first pope to deal with the crisis publicly. While he condemned clergy abuse as an “appalling sin” in April 2002, shortly after the Globe report came out, he urged Catholics to focus on the “power of Christian conversion” — redemption — for abusers. He also blamed bishops’ poor handling of the crisis as rooted in “the advice of clinical experts,” such as therapists who treated offending priests and, in the Vatican’s eyes, misleadingly suggested they might be able to return to ministry once “cured.”

The Catholic hierarchy’s focus was, by and large, on ensuring repentance from and redemption for the sinner, not justice for the accusers.

His successor, Benedict, fared a little better. He handed over control of dealing with priest allegations to the centralized office of the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith, which he personally oversaw, allowing a degree of streamlining in the process. Under Benedict’s watch, the Church defrocked 384 priests accused of child sex abuse. Benedict met with victims, including five from the Boston archdiocese.

Benedict also ordered an investigation into — and ultimately removed from office — an influential Mexican priest, Marcial Degollado, founder of the powerful religious order Legionaries of Christ, for reported abuse. He was ordered by the Vatican to live a life of seclusion, penance, and prayer until his death.

Many Vatican watchers saw the act as evidence of Benedict’s commitment to combating the issue. But Benedict’s critics say he did not go far enough. He allowed bishops like Kansas’s Robert Finn — who was criminally convicted for failing to report child porn on a junior priest’s computer — to remain in office after his conviction. Benedict also barred men with same-sex attraction from priestly office, seen by many as an unnecessary and insulting move.

In 2010, revelations emerged that Benedict himself — as an archbishop in Munich in the 1980s — was responsible for overseeing the transfer into therapy of a German priest accused of child sex abuse instead of immediately removing him from ministry. That priest was later cleared for reentry into pastoral work, only to commit further sexual abuse. He was ultimately criminally prosecuted for it.

Pope Francis has been making progress — but is it enough?

Pope Francis’s own legacy has, likewise, been mixed.

Shortly after becoming pope, Francis announced the creation of a Vatican committee to fight sex abuse in the church. In 2014, he named eight people, including one clerical abuse survivor, Marie Collins, to that committee. He also publicly apologized for the Vatican’s actions, expressing regret that “personal, moral damage” had been “carried out by men of the Church.” He also urged any priest who had enabled abuse by moving an abuser to another parish to resign.

However, progress has been slow. In 2016, the Vatican committee scrapped a proposal that any senior cleric accused of covering up abuse be subject to an internal tribunal, angering victims’ advocates. That same year, Collins stepped down from the committee, calling the Vatican’s lack of progress “shameful.”

And Francis, too, has vocally cast doubt on some accusers. When confronted with allegations that Father Juan Barros, a Chilean priest, had covered up systematic abuse by another priest, Francis called the claims “calumny.” He later apologized for his remarks, and the entire Chilean bishopric resigned under pressure after meeting with Francis on the issue.

Viganò’s letter accusing Francis of neglecting McCarrick’s abuse, however, may prove particularly influential. Even if Francis does not resign, which seems likely, Viganò’s letter may nevertheless intensify the call on some of Francis’s allies — such as Washington, DC’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who has been implicated in cover-ups in both the Pennsylvania report and the McCarrick crisis — to step down.

How the church — and the legal system — will move forward

Francis’s response to the Pennsylvania report has been encouraging. While the Vatican itself released a relatively anodyne statement saying that it “condemns unequivocally” child sex abuse, Francis issued a 2,000-word open letter to all “People of God.”

That letter condemns what he calls a “culture of death” on the part of the church: a systematic silencing and shaming of victims. “We showed no care for the little ones,” he wrote, adding, “We abandoned them.”

Francis did not make specific policy recommendations going forward. He did, however, express sympathy with the victims and a commitment to changing the culture of the church. “Looking back to the past,” he wrote, “no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Individual bishops and dioceses have taken varying actions in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania report. Some are choosing to remain silent. Others, like Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne–South Bend diocese in Indiana (and formerly of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), say they will release the names of all priests in their diocese who have ever been removed from ministry due to child sex abuse.

It is unclear what to expect from still-active priests who, like McCarrick, have been accused of abuse or participation in a cover-up. It’s important to note that the process of “defrocking” a priest — formally known as “laicizing” — is not automatic. As Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and Catholic commentator, told Vox, the process is subject to complex internal rules. So while priests may be removed from active ministry, laicization is a longer, more complicated process similar to a courtroom trial, which also demands the formal presumption of innocence.

As it stands, the church itself is doing little to centralize and publicize narratives of abuse. David Gibson, director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a frequent commentator on Catholic issues, told Vox that there’s still been a widespread reluctance on the part of the church itself to take similar initiatives. “There was no push by the church to do it,” he said. “I think it’s also important to do it … The vast majority of [dioceses] are saying ‘Everybody’s dead! These are very old [cases]!’ … Nobody is trusting the church enough to know in that sense to police its own.” That means that, thus far, it falls to civil authorities — such as grand juries like that in Pennsylvania — to investigate and reveal the scope of allegations.

Meanwhile, on the legal front, Pennsylvania lawmakers are pushing for changes in the statute of limitations to allow victims of clerical sex abuse to pursue civil or criminal charges.

It is unclear whether reports on the scale of Pennsylvania’s will emerge in other states. Pennsylvania’s distinctive grand jury system, which allows the attorney general’s office to commission a large-scale investigation before filing any charges, was integral in assembling the report. There have only been nine such investigations in the United States since the Boston Globe story, including investigations into New Hampshire and Maine’s Catholic churches.

New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has announced that she, working with several district attorneys throughout the state, may wage a similar commission there. Westchester and Suffolk counties already have investigations underway.

While defenders of the Vatican argue that the Dallas charter has drastically decreased the number of post-2002 cases of abuse, tips are still flooding into prosecutorial and private Pennsylvania hotlines about decades-old cases.

Cases that — for now — have no way of being prosecuted.


  • 1,338