National News

 U.S. Headlines



Unholy Crisis

After more sex-abuse scandals, what's next for the Catholic Church?

February 4, 2002


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 unknown.

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 Ireland.

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

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests