Trail of Pain in Church Crisis Leads to Nearly Every
By Laurie Goodstein, January 12, 2003
The sexual abuse crisis that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church
in the last 12 months has now spread to nearly every American diocese
and involves more than 1,200 priests, most of whose careers straddle
a sharp divide in church history and seminary training.
These priests are known to have abused more than 4,000 minors over
the last six decades, according to an extensive New York Times survey
of documented cases of sexual abuse by priests through Dec. 31,
The survey, the most complete compilation of data on the problem
available, contains the names and histories of 1,205 accused priests.
It counted 4,268 people who have claimed publicly or in lawsuits
to have been abused by priests, though experts say there are surely
many more who have remained silent.
The survey provides a statistical framework for viewing the sexual
abuse crisis against the modern history of the American Catholic
Church. It found, for example, that most priests accused of abuse
were ordained between the mid-1950's and the 1970's, a period of
upheaval in the church, when men trained in the traditional authoritarian
seminary system were sent out to serve in a rapidly changing church
and social culture.
Most of the abuse occurred in the 1970's and 1980's, the survey
found. The number of priests accused of abuse declined sharply by
But the data show that priests secretly violated vulnerable youth
long before the first victims sued the church and went public in
1984 in Louisiana. Some offenses date from the 1930's.
"This has been going on for decades, probably centuries," said
Richard K. O'Connor, a former Dominican priest who says he was one
of 10 boys sexually assaulted by three priests in a South Bronx
parish in 1940, when he was 10. "It's just that all of a sudden,
they got caught."
The survey also shows how pervasive the abuse has been. Using information
from court records, news reports, church documents and interviews,
the survey found accusations of abuses in all but 16 of the 177
Latin Rite dioceses in the United States.
Every region was seriously affected, with 206 accused priests in
the West, 246 in the South, 335 in the Midwest and 434 in the Northeast.
(Some priests were counted more than once if they abused in more
than one region.) The crisis reached not only big cities like Boston
and Los Angeles but smaller ones like Louisville, Ky., with 27 priests
accused, and St. Cloud, Minn., with 9.
The scandal has set off an intense debate within the church over
what caused it and what can resolve it. Many Catholic conservatives
blame the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the social upheaval
of the 1960's for removing priestly inhibitions on sexuality and
dissent. Liberals tend to find the root causes in what they call
the church's repressive approach to sex, including priestly celibacy,
and its deeply ingrained culture of secrecy. The Times database
provides evidence to support the arguments of both sides.
The data, together with extensive interviews with priests and former
priests, abuse victims, church historians, psychologists and experts
on sexual disorders, suggest that although the problem involved
only a small percentage of priests, it was deeply embedded in the
culture of the Catholic priesthood. Many priests began seminary
training as young as 13, and all of them spent years being groomed
in an insular world in which sexual secrets and transgressions were
considered a matter for the confessional, not the criminal courts.
The Times survey counted priests from dioceses and religious orders
who had been accused by name of sexually abusing one or more children.
It determined that 1.8 percent of all priests ordained from 1950
to 2001 had been accused of abuse.
But the research also suggested that the extent of the problem
remains hidden. In dioceses that have divulged what they say are
complete lists of abusive priests under court orders or voluntarily
the percentages are far higher. In Baltimore, an estimated 6.2
percent of priests ordained in the last half-century have been implicated
in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, N.H., the percentage is 7.7,
and in Boston it is 5.3.
In November, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a top Vatican official,
declared that "less than 1 percent" of priests had abused minors,
and that there were fewer sex offenders among priests than other
But experts say it is impossible to know whether priests abuse
more or less often than people in other professions, or even in
the general population, because there are no reliable studies.
The Times data include only cases in which priests were named,
and many bishops have released only partial lists of accused priests,
or refused to identify any.
"My assessment is it's only the tip of the iceberg," said William
R. Stayton, professor and coordinator of the human sexuality doctoral
program at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who was shown the
results of the Times study. "You really don't have a true picture.
I have worked with many clergy sexual abuse cases over the years,
and very, very few of them were reported."
That attitude may be changing. Since last January, when the Boston
Archdiocese was forced to disclose documents showing that for years
its officials had protected priests who molested, hundreds of people
have come forward with accusations of abuse.
In those 12 months, as the scandal exploded throughout the church,
432 accused priests have resigned, retired or been removed from
Because in the nearly 20 years since the problem surfaced the American
bishops have refused to cooperate with researchers who sought to
initiate studies, the Times study offers the fullest picture possible
of the extent of sexual abuse within the church. These are among
the other findings:
Half of the priests in the database were accused of molesting more
than one minor, and 16 percent are accused of having had five or
Eighty percent of the priests were accused of molesting boys.
The percentage is nearly the opposite for laypeople accused of abuse;
their victims are mostly girls.
While the majority of the priests were accused of molesting teenagers
only, 43 percent were accused of molesting children 12 and younger.
Experts in sexual disorders say the likeliest repeat offenders are
those who abuse prepubescent children and boys.
Those ordained in 1970 and 1975 included the highest percentage
of priests accused of abuse: 3.3 percent. More known offenders were
ordained in the 1970's than in any other decade.
Of the 432 priests removed from or who left the ministry last
year, 183 were suspended, living in limbo while waiting for church
panels to decide their cases. Bishops were known to have begun the
most drastic step, defrocking, for only 11 priests, despite agreeing
to a policy at their Dallas meeting last year that encouraged this
option. At least nine priests have been reinstated.
The Boston Archdiocese, which received the most scrutiny in news
reports last year, did have the most accused priests 94 but
not the worst problem proportionally. More than a dozen other dioceses
had a higher rate of accused priests when taken as a percentage
of their active priests.
The study shows only what has become public about a crime usually
kept secret by both abuser and victim. Some experts, for instance,
contend that the sharp drop in priests accused of abuse in the 1990's
is less a result of efforts by the church to confront the problem
than a reflection that the victims have not yet come forward.
Resisting Only `Punch and Judy'
The first significant number of priests accused of abuse to emerge
in the study were trained in the 1950's and early 1960's. It was
the heyday of American Catholicism, when newly comfortable middle-class
Catholics financed hundreds of new parochial schools and seminaries,
and many of the faith's best and brightest enlisted to serve their
church. Many are bishops today.
"The priesthood was riding high," said Jay P. Dolan, a professor
of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of "In Search
of American Catholicism" (Oxford, 2002). "A lot of boys were entering
the seminary. It appealed to your altruism, your desire to help
others, and it was a profession very highly valued by Catholics
To qualify, a young man needed little more than to say he felt
"called" to a priestly vocation. "Getting in the seminary then was
a rather easy process," said Mr. Dolan, who entered a seminary in
1954. "There was no screening of candidates at all. They accepted
anybody, and the numbers were incredible."
It was typical then for boys to begin their training in a minor
seminary at age 13 or 14, continuing directly through for 10 or
12 years until ordination. Many of the minor seminaries, most of
which were phased out starting in the 1970's, were essentially boarding
schools. There young men lived together in semi-monastic isolation,
missing most of the social, sexual and developmental milestones
their peers were experiencing back home.
"If you remained in the system, you were treated the same way when
you were 26 as when you were 14 basically as little children,"
said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation
of Priests Councils, who studied to be a priest in northern California
in the 1950's. "On Thursdays, you signed out to go to town and buy
what you needed. You couldn't go to a movie, to a restaurant. You
went to a drugstore, and you came home. Once a month when we were
younger we used to get what we called a walk into town. We could
go and get milkshakes, but we always went together. You rarely socialized
with other people."
Seminary instructors warned students to stay away from temptations,
but they never mentioned altar boys and teenagers. Their chief concerns,
Mr. Dolan remembers, were "Punch and Judy" alcohol and women.
Diocesan priests take a vow of celibacy, promising never to marry
or have sex with women. Seminarians were taught that all other sexual
activity was unchaste and sinful, but not a violation of the celibacy
Some priests relied on this distinction to rationalize to their
victims, the authorities or church superiors that mutual masturbation,
fellatio or touching children's bodies, however wrong, left their
celibacy vow intact, according to some victims, therapists who treated
the abusers and court records.
In general, though, the entire subject of sexuality was taboo in
"It amounted to don't ask, don't tell, don't touch," said Paul
E. Dinter, a former priest ordained in 1965 and the author of a
new book, "The Other Side of the Altar" (Farrar Straus & Giroux).
"In my lifetime there were still seminaries handing out paddles
so you could tuck your shirt into your pants and never touch yourself.
There were nuns showering in gowns so they were never naked."
Psychologists who have treated priest offenders now say that such
a sexually repressed environment appealed to some young men who
felt guilty about being sexually stimulated by children, male teenagers
or adult men.
Dr. Eli Coleman, professor and director of the Program in Human
Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said, "The
church was definitely an attractive haven for a lot of people who
naturally wished that somehow, through a spiritual life, they would
not have to deal with those conflicts."
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