After more sex-abuse scandals, what's next for the
February 4, 2002
BY JEFFERY SHELER - US News
A sex-abuse scandal that has hounded the Roman Catholic Church
for years grew deeper and wider last week as disturbing new details
of pedophile priests and complicit church officials emerged in Massachusetts,
Arizona, and elsewhere. The worsening scandal and a resulting proliferation
of punishing lawsuits and costly legal settlements threaten to take
an increasingly heavy toll on the church's finances and its already
tarnished public image. More than that, it could further erode confidence
within the church itself, challenging the ability of embattled church
leaders to speak with a credible moral voice to their own flock.
The latest revelations came in court records unsealed in mid-January
in the case of John Geoghan, a former parish priest convicted last
month of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy a decade ago. The
records, obtained and first reported by the Boston Globe, depict
the loathsome deeds of a sexual predator who allegedly preyed on
more than 100 innocent children over three decades. The church already
has paid more than $10 million to settle 50 civil lawsuits against
Geoghan alone, who faces a second criminal trial later this month
on charges of raping a 7-year-old. And last week, an examination
of court records by the Globe revealed that the Boston archdiocese
has quietly settled child sex-abuse claims against at least 70 other
priests in the past 10 years. The size of those secret payouts is
Abuse and power. No less troubling was the behavior, depicted in
court records, of church leaders who could have stopped the abuse
but didn't. Instead, they quietly shuttled the predatory priest
from parish to parish where he continued to prey on children. Geoghan
wasn't even defrocked until 1998. Last month, Cardinal Bernard Law
apologized for failing to stop Geoghan sooner and promised that
the diocese would begin reporting to civil authorities all allegations
of child sex abuse, both past and future. Law has rejected calls
for his own resignation.
Boston is not the only place where the Catholic Church faces a
worsening sex-abuse crisis. In Tucson last week, the Roman Catholic
diocese settled a case against four priests accused of molesting
nine altar boys and another youth in the 1970s. Terms of the settlement
were not disclosed but reportedly was in the millions of dollars.
In a letter to his parishioners, Tucson Bishop Manuel D. Moreno
said the payout would have "very painful consequences"
for the diocese, causing it to go further into debt. Moreno also
planned to send personal apologies to each of the victims.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland agreed last week
to pay $110 million to settle cases involving hundreds of people
who claim they were sexually abused as children by priests, nuns,
and other church officials over several decades. Many of the incidents
are said to have occurred at state-funded, church-run schools. In
exchange for the settlement, the government agreed to indemnify
the church against further legal action by sex-abuse victims in
These were just the latest in a string of cases that have emerged
since the late 1980s. Exactly how large the problem has become is
difficult to judge. There is no official tally of victims and abusers,
and the church says it doesn't keep track. And while some big settlements
have been made public--a $120 million jury award in Dallas in 1997
that later was reduced to $23 million and a $5.2 million award in
Los Angeles late last year--many lawsuits are settled out of court
with details kept confidential.
But lawyers and sex-abuse experts familiar with many of the cases
say those that have been made public represent only a small fraction.
Some have estimated that the scandal to date has involved more than
3,000 priests and tens of thousands of victims. At least one noted
expert, A. W. Richard Sipe, a retired psychotherapist and author
of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, estimates that
since the late 1980s, the church has paid out close to $1 billion
in settlements and legal and other expenses. Church officials say
that figure is exaggerated.
Beyond the huge financial strain the settlements are creating,
some church analysts say the scandal has exposed deep fissures in
the church's governing structure, revealing a bureaucracy unable--or
unwilling--to keep discipline within its own ranks. After a flurry
of damaging lawsuits in the early 1990s, U.S. bishops rushed to
set tough standards to root out pedophile priests and help sex-abuse
victims. Most of the nation's 188 dioceses adopted stricter guidelines.
But enforcement of those standards was largely left to diocesan
bishops, and some were more aggressive than others. As a result
"enforcement has been spotty at best," notes Jason Berry,
whose 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and
the Sexual Abuse of Children, first brought the widening scandal
into national focus. Exacerbating the problem, Berry says, has been
"the total lack of leadership from the Vatican on this issue
. . . . They don't want to get near it, or if they do, it's in secret."
A new Vatican policy quietly circulated to bishops last summer requires
church authorities to swiftly inform the Holy See of sex-abuse allegations.
But it also declared the cases subject to secret internal proceedings,
prompting some to argue that the new rules would erode rather than
build trust in the church.
Trouble everywhere. While recent cases have focused on Catholic
clergy, virtually every religious denomination has had its scandals.
Over the past decade, reports of sexual misdeeds by clergy have
cut across the religious landscape, from Protestant and Mormon churches
to Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist congregations. One nationwide survey
found that 1 in 4 members of the clergy reported having had some
kind of sexual contact with someone other than their spouse, and
more than 1 in 10 said they had committed adultery. Another recent
nationwide study found that nearly 90 percent of pastoral counselors
have had clients report incidents of clergy sexual abuse.
Confronted by the current rash of publicity and lawsuits, several
Protestant denominations have implemented policies in recent years
to deal with sexual abusers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),
the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Christ all
have reworked or implemented policies to identify sexual abuse and
harassment and to spell out procedures for removing offending pastors.
Most of the nation's 188 Roman Catholic dioceses also have revised
policies in line with a call by U.S. bishops in the mid-1990s to
"break this cycle of abuse."
Whether any of this will work, of course, remains to be seen. "Sexual
abuse is still occurring, and the recycling of abusers is still
occuring," says David Clohessy, national director of Survivors
Network of Those Abused by Priests, a nationwide support group.
But with jury awards and settlements mounting, and church finances
and reputations increasingly at risk, there are powerful incentives
for the nation's churches to put their houses in order.
With Justin Ewers