In the late twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church was hit by a series of allegations, many substantiated, concerning sexual abuse of children under the legal age of consent1 by priests, nuns and people employed by the Church. Well-publicized charges that the Church in some instances deliberately covered up such crimes have fueled criticism of the institution and its leadership. While not every allegation stood up to scrutiny, an extremely large percentage did, resulting in apologies and restitution by the Church and the criminal prosecution of some of those who engaged in the acts.

Table of contents
1 The threefold allegations
2 Sex abuse allegations against Catholic clergymen in the community
3 Sex abuse allegations in Church institutions
4 The Church's response to sex abuse by its priests before the scandal
5 Catholicism and Paedophilia
6 Some specific abuse cases
7 Resignations of Bishops over mishandling of cases
8 Footnotes
9 Additional reading
10 External links

The threefold allegations

The allegations concerned:

1. The sexual abuse by religious and secular clergy of children with whom they had contact in the community;

2. The sexual abuse of children in religious-run houses, orphanages and schools, by both clergy and laity;

3. The policy of Roman Catholicism 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.

While not every allegation stood up to scrutiny, an extremely large percentage did, resulting in the criminal presecution of some 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) were forced to resign 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. However critics accused some national hierarchies of not going far enough to prevent sex abuse of children. In the aftermath of the scandals over sex abuse allegations and cases, the Catholic Church experienced a drop in numbers of Catholics attending Mass and the Sacraments, and a substantial drop in income from weekly collections from Mass goers. Critics suggested that the controversy had the potential to become the biggest crisis to hit Roman Catholicism since the Reformation.

Sex abuse allegations against Catholic clergymen in the community

The largely unrestricted contact clergyman had with children (through teaching in schools and parish links with families) meant that a paedophile in the priesthood had a far less difficult task in getting access to children than any other paedophile other than paedophile parents or guardians. In part that was because priests and religious 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 a child his or her First Communion to marrying couples and being the celebrant of their funerals.

Apart from that direct family associations, 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, or who were closet paedophiles, had as a result a degree of access to children only matched by their parents or close relatives.

One of the worst examples of a clergyman using his links with families to facilitate the abuse of children occurred in Ireland, where one religious priest2 systematically between 1945 and 1990 raped and sexually abused hundreds of children. The scandal over the Fr. Brendan Smyth case, and the gross mishandling of his case by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and his Norbertine Order, caused immense damage to the Catholic Church's credibility, as did other cases, such as a parish priest, Fr. Jim Grennan, who abused children on the altar of his local church as they prepared for First Communion, and Fr. Sean Fortune, who committed suicide before his trial for child rape. The abuse by Grennon 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 credibility of its archbishop, Cardinal Connell. In ten years, the percentage of Irish people attending weekly Mass declined from 63% to 48%.

Sex abuse allegations in Church 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. Many of these institutions were heavily associated with allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in their care. 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, whether physical or sexual, of acting for the best interests of the children or in accordance with the criminal law in their jurisdiction. In addition governmental institutions have been criticised for neglecting their responsibilities; many of the children in orphanages and reformatory schools were placed in those institutions by agents of the state. Yet state inspectorates failed to adequately ensure that the children were properly looked after, in some cases failing to properly inquire into allegations of improper treatment of children.

Some of the most serious allegations of abuse were made against clergy who either worked in the institution or who, in an era of unqualified trust in the clergy, were allowed unlimited visitation rights and access to children. Other allegations have been made against laymen working in these institutions. A small number of sexual allegations have also been made against nuns, but most of the allegations against nuns suggest physical and emotional rather than sexual abuse. As with the secular clergy in parishes, the majority of allegations have resulted in crimimal convictions, with the details of the abuse revealed in the court cases causing shock in the wider community but in particular among Catholics.

The Church's response to sex abuse by its priests before the scandal

The response of the Roman Catholic Church to sex abuse by its priests in the twentieth century involved numerous methods to avoid criminal prosecution of the priests. This eventually led to a widespread scandal at the turn of the century when the volume and severity of the cases was made public. That priests who Church officials knew to be serial pedophiles were permitted to have access to children was widely considered the worst failure of the Church's response.

Problems caused by religious/secular clergy distinction

In many cases, the abuse suffered was compounded by the chronic mishandling of cases. Part of the mishandling was due to the unique internal governmental structures within Roman Catholicism. Religious clergy (ie those in religious orders) are not in any way answerable to the local bishop, merely to their order. So in the case of Fr. Brendan Smyth, for example, bishops who were informed of Smyth's systematic abuse of parish children had no authority to act against him.

Abusers moved from location to location

However even more serious was the manner in which those with the internal church authority to intervene (bishops against secular priests in their diocese, religious orders against religious priests) handled allegations. Instead of being removed from locations where they might have access to children, priests were routined moved to new parishes or order houses, without any warning given to those in the new house or parish as to their past actions. Thus sexual abuse by clergy frequently occurred over a wide geographic area, involving many parishes, many schools, many religious institutions.

While some of the moves in some cases many have been intended to protect the abuser, many dioceses submitted priests guilty of child abuse for intensive psychotherapeutic treatment and assessment, 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 church actions suggest that in re-assigning priests for duty after treatment they were acting on the basis of advice from medical experts, given that in many cases treatments can be successful. Critics however question whether bishops are necessarily able to form accurate judgments on the nature of the recovery of a priest, or indeed whether they paid enough heed to the qualifications and warnings issued by medical experts who were outside the Church and so part of secular society.

Failure to report criminal acts to police

From a criminal law viewpoint, the single worst failure of the Roman Catholic Church was the widespread failure of those in authority, once alerted as to the behaviour of individual sex abusers and paedophiles under their authority, to report the incidents directly to the police in their state. This phenomenon occurred in every country with rare exceptions. The Church, where it saw rules as having been broken, focused almost exclusively on its own rules and its own legal code, Canon Law, rather than the criminal law in their country. Though such a phenomenon exists widely in religion in general (where disputes regularly arise over non-compliance with planning regulations, anti-discrimination legislation, employment rights, etc) in the case of child sex abuse it proved to have catastrophic consequences. The Norbertine Order, for example, knew not merely of Fr. Brendan Smyth's paedophile tendencies but 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, all from non-church sources, to prosecute Smyth.

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 paedophile, 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').

The recently publicised 1962 document Crimen Sollicitationis, which encouraged silence in the face of a range of misdemeanours by clergy related to their conduct with people attending the Sacrament of Confession, may also have encouraged bishops to cover up accusations of child molestation.

However, unambiguous evidence of individual plots to conceal evidence does exist. In 1990, Auxiliary Bishop Quinn of Cleveland was secretly recorded recommending that evidence be removed from files of priests, and that if necessary some sensitive paperwork be given to the Apostolic Nunciature, the embassy of the Holy See, on the basis that the evidence would then be covered by diplomatic immunity. [1]

In the case of Fr. Jim Grennan in Ireland, who was accused of sexually abusing 12 schoolgirls who were preparing for their local Sacrament of Confirmation under his supervision in the local church, a police file on Grennan went missing. He was never prosecuted for lack of surviving evidence. The since deceased policeman supervising the inquiry subsequently received a church award.

Payments to victims to discourage reporting of the crime

Widespread reports even suggested that some members of the hierarchy paid off victims of the criminal offence of child abuse to prevent them reporting the crime. In the mid 1990s, the Roman Catholic Archibishop (later Cardinal) Connell of Dublin 'loaned' money to a priest who had abused altar-boy Andrew Madden, to enable the priest to pay "compensation" to Madden and prevent Madden 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.

This failure has perhaps caused the biggest sense of betrayal among church members. The belief that the institution thought itself above the criminal law, in the process endangering the safety of millions of children worldwide, caused widespread shock. Its defenders sought to suggest that, though a wrong reaction, the Church's handling was a simple example of how large organisations and institutions judge issues in terms of their own rules and regulations, "looking after its own", a phenomenon reflected in the activities of major corporations, sectors of society and even political elites in how they react to unacceptable behaviour by a minority of their own members; keep the issue 'in-house' and try to find a solution without involving 'outsiders'. In the Smyth case, efforts were even made to silence a critic of the Norbertine Order's behaviour, Fr. Bruno Mulvihill, while in the aftermath of the revelation of the full story of Smyth's behaviour in a UTV television, Suffer Little Children, the vicar to the head of the Norbertines, Abbot Benjamin Mackin of the De Pere Abbey in Wisconsin in the United States came to Norbertine's Irish headquarters to speak to the Order's priests. Far from apologising, he blamed the media for covering the Smyth story, saying it was out to "attack . . . the church."3

Critics note the tendency of religion in general to assume that it, as a religion dealing with the 'word of God', is superior to civil and secular society. Catholicism's belief in itself as the "true church" of Jesus Christ, they argue, made it believe that its own rules, created by its God-ordained elite, were morally superior to mere state law, hence the priority given to Canon law over civil or criminal law enacted by secular society.

An additional complicating factor centres on the Sacrament of Confession, in which Catholics believe that any wrongs confessed to God in the sacrament, in the presence of a priest as mediator, can be forgiven but also cannot be revealed with breaching the 'seal of confession'. According to Roman Catholic theology, a paedophile who confesses his activities in the Sacrament of Confession cannot have his comments and revelations made in confession reported by his confessor to any other person, inside or outside the Church.

Catholicism and Paedophilia

Chicago study suggests 1.8% of priests possibly child abusers

Statistical studies suggest that the level of paedophilia and sexual abuse4 among Roman Catholic is no higher than among clergy in other faiths. A 1990s review of the records of 2200 priests in the Chicago Archdiocese who served at some point between between 1950 and 1990, and which applied a low threshold of proof (akin to the 'balance of probabilities' applied in civil law, as opposed to the higher 'beyond reasonable doubt' used in criminal prosecution cases such as for sex abuse) found a child sex abuse rate among the clergy of 1.8%, or 40 priests out of 2200 over a forty year period, with 98.2% cleared of any suggestion of child sex abuse; of the 40, 39 were rated likely child abusers and 1 qualified under as a paedophile. However, given the civil law rather than criminal threshold applied, it is possible that not all of these cases, had they been prosecuted, would have led to criminal convictions. 5

Other studies showed similar percentages; a study of approximately 3000 priests who had served as a priest at some time over a period of fifty years in the Archdiocese of Boston showed up a child abuse rate of 2%. A study of the records in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia since 1950 threw up a child abuse rate of 1.6%. [1]

Celibacy and Sex Abuse

Critics have however suggested that celibacy among the Roman 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. Suggestions that paedophiles deliberately enter the Roman Catholic clergy due to the 'cover' its celibacy provides and the access to children that was a common feature of a priest's life, remain unproven. Though paedophile rings have been found, the fact that there is no noticeable difference between the level of child-orientated sexual activity among the unmarried Roman Catholic clergy and the married clergy of other denominations suggests that paedophiles as a group have not specially targeted the Roman Catholic clergy for entry, though it seems likely that some paedophiles have entered its ordained ministry as they have other ministries elsewhere.

There is no evidence whatsoever that paedophilia 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 poor preparation for celibacy

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 most clergy had "psychosexual" problems which often expressed itself in alcohol abuse and heterosexual or homosexual activity. Though the report suggested that immediate corrective action was needed, making ten recommendations, and one of those most active in the Synod was Cardinal Wojtyla, who on October 16, 1978 was elected Pope John Paul II, no implementation of the report's detailed recommendations followed.

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. Critics have however noted that the Roman Catholic hierarchies seem to have targeted homosexuality within the clergy, in the mistaken belief that it is homosexual clergy that are committed child abuse; in fact paedophila is child-orientated, not sexual orientation-orientated, within sex abuse widely carried by heterosexuals. (The cases of Brendan Smyth and Jim Grennan, mentioned earlier, involved the abuse of both boys and girls, with the availability of the child, not their gender, triggering off the abuse.)

Could the report explain the Church leadership's inability to deal with child sex abuse?

As important perhaps as the potential for child abuse that the 1971 study revealed is what it revealed about the leadership elite within Roman Catholicism that would have to deal with the child abuse crisis. It is highly unlikely that the people selected to become bishops would come exclusively from the less than 15% of clergy described as 'emotionally fully developed'. It is a matter of speculation how much of the Catholic Church's mishandling of sex-abuse cases was influenced by the what Dr. Baars called the 'psychosexual' problems of so many clergy at all levels of the church. To what extent were wrong judgments a product of a determination to cover up abuse, a desire to keep 'outsiders' from 'interfering', or incompetence that was a product of the individual bishop's or religious order head's own emotional ignorance of human sexuality?

The erroneous equation of some within the Church of paedophilia with homosexuality suggests in critics minds' a considerable ignorance of elementary aspects of human sexuality. Some critics have even suggested that 'ignorance' of the reality of child sex-abuse is symptomatic of a broader 'problem' Roman Catholicism has with sexuality in general. According to such critics, if the church regards the only valid form of human sexuality as sexual activity involving a married heterosexual couple in a Catholic-sanctioned marriage that does not involve the use of 'artificial contraception', and regards all other forms invalid, (masturbation, adult homosexual relationships, adult non-marital heterosexual relationships, marital relationships using contraception, marital relationships not sanctioned by the Church - ie, those involving divorceés, etc -, sexual activity involving an adult and a child) is it able to differentiate in terms of scale between them? Or does it simply class sexual activity in a form not blessed by the church as wrong, without grasping how secular society views the different forms of sexual activity as dramatically different? Given that it uses the most extreme form of censure to describe adult consensual homosexual relationships ("intrinsically evil") how much further can it go to condemn a non-consensual sex act involving a child is an unwilling participant in a sex act with an adult? The 2003 statement which spoke of the mere adoption of a child by a homosexual couple as an act of "violence", in the eyes of some critics, suggests that the Catholic Church possesses a deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality in general, an interpretation reflective of the 1971 survey, and which some of it defenders argue, explains, though not justifies, its flawed handling of the whole issue of child sex abuse by its priests and laity working in Church institutions.

Some critics also charge that other doctrines or traditional practices in Roman Catholicism contribute to the problem. Roman Catholic teaching about the sacraments, many of which can only be performed by priests or bishops, 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 rites he has performed. The doctrine of apostolic succession makes valid ordinations and institutional affiliation the chief consideration in clerical status, at the expense of personal calling or sanctity of life. It is also widely understood that the Roman Catholic clergy is understaffed, at least in the United States; clerical celibacy is widely blamed for this situation. These doctrines and this circumstance combine to make Roman Catholic clergy extraordinary valuable human capital. It is charged that the Roman 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 mislandling of the sex abuse cases was 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. Others suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is being unfairly singled out by a secular media which they say fails to highlight similar sexual scandals in other religious faiths, such as the Anglican Communion, various Protestant churches, the Jewish community, the media focus on Catholic scandals reflecting an anti-Catholic agenda. In particular they focus on the term Paedophile priests widely used in the media and note that the term implies a distinctly higher rate of paedophilia within the Roman Catholic priesthood than in reality actually exists, its 1.5 to 2% being no higher than any other segment of society and lower than some. And they ask when, in the interests of balance, the media will write about paedophile teachers, paedophile police or paedophile politicians.

Some specific abuse cases

There have been an estimated 1,400 sexual abuse lawsuits launched against priests in the United States since 1985. In 1997 a jury awarded $120 million to victims in a sex abuse case against the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, Texas.

  • Fr. Rudolph Kos - Dallas, Texas, United States. On July 10, 1998 the Diocese of Dallas agreed to pay $23.4 million to nine former altar boys who claimed they were sexually abused by Kos. The diocese declared bankruptcy and closed many of its agencies and schools. Current settlements in the Boston, Massachusetts suits could reach up to $100 million. In some cases insurance companies have balked at meeting the cost of large settlements, claiming the actions were deliberate and not covered by insurance.

  • Fr. John Geoghan - Boston, Massachusetts, United States. Though over 100 victims made complaints, Geoghan was convicted of just one single instance of sexual assault on a child. Geoghan was murdered by a fellow prisoner while serving his prison sentence in August 2003; two additional charges were pending at that time. Because his conviction was on appeal when he was killed, it will be expunged from his legal record.

  • Fr. Louis Miller - Louisville, Kentucky. On March 31, 2003, Rev. Miller pled guilty to 44 counts of "indecent or immoral acts" and six charges of first degree sexual abuse, relating to incidents involving at least 21 children between 1957 and 1982. Miller also pled guilty to 14 further charges in Oldham County, Kentucky. Miller was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on the Louisville convictions. The Archdiocese of Louisville made a $25.7 million dollar settlement involving 243 victims of sexual abuse, which was approved by a Louisville court on August 1, 2003.

  • Fr. Sean Fortune - Ferns, Ireland. Faced 29 child sex abuse allegations (as well as unconnected allegations of stealing money) when he committed suicide in March 1999.

  • Fr. Jim Grennan - Ferns, Ireland. Accusing of abusing 12 girls preparing for their confirmation. Removed from the parish, then re-instated on the day of the confirmation, leading to a walk out by parents from the ceremony. Police file on his actions 'lost'. He was never prosecuted.

  • Fr Paul McGennis - Dublin, Republic of Ireland. Abused Marie Collins when as a 13 year old she was in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in 1961. Collins later told McGennis admitted abusing children. However the Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin refused "on legal advice" to supply his file on McGennis to the Irish police. He was nevertheless convicted and gaoled. Collins demanded and finally got an apology from Cardinal Connell.

Resignations of Bishops over mishandling of cases

  • Bernard Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, United States had come under enormous public pressure to resign after church documents revealed his extensive role in covering up sex crimes committed by priests in his archdiocese. The Vatican announced on December 13, 2002 that Pope John Paul II had accepted Law's resignation as Archbishop. As is standard he retains his appointment to be a cardinal for life.

  • Bishop Brendan Comiskey, Bishop of Ferns, Ireland, following a BBC Correspondent TV programme, 'Suing the Pope', which revealed his and his predecessor's incompetent handling of child sex abuse cases in his diocese.

Organisations for survivors of clerical sex abuse

In the United States there are a number of grassroots organizations, most notably Voice of The Faithful and SNAP; The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. These organizations together are representative of thousands of people. In Ireland the main abuse charity is called One in Four under abuse survivor Colm O'Gorman.


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 A distinction exists between religious and secular clergy. The former refers to clergy who are members of religious orders and who operate under the authority of their religious order, not the local bishop, whereas secular clergy refers to clergy who are in a diocese under the authority of the local bishop.

3 Abbot Benjamin Mackin of the De Pere Abbey, Wisconsin, speaking in Kilnacrott Abbey, Ireland, quoted in Chris Moore, Betrayal of Trust: The Father Brendan Smyth Affair and the Catholic Church (Marino, 1995) p.237.

4 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.

5 Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis' (Oxford University Press, 2001)

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