The Catholic Church: Abuse and Its Implications

Claire Ho ‘20

On Thursday, February 21, 2019, the Catholic Church’s unprecedented, high-profile Rome summit on clerical sexual abuse began. Authorized by Pope Francis and dubbed the “Protection of Minors in the Church,” the meeting meant for “prayer and discernment” was attended by more than 100 bishops from around the world.


Pope Francis opened the summit with a speech, announcing that the Catholic Church would be seeking “concrete, effective measures” to prevent sexual abuse from happening again within the church. Francis presented 21 “reflection points” at the summit, which outlined general guidelines for the abuse crisis. Among them were proposals to establish specific protocols for dealing with cases of abuse, compile codes of conduct for clerics and volunteers, raise awareness of the occurrence of abuse and its consequences, and make available a group with “certain autonomy” from the Church for victims to be able to reach out to.


Prior to the commencement of the summit, Francis had tried to minimize public expectations for the meeting following raised expectations that the summit would be a turning point in the Church’s response to the abuse scandal. He stated the goal as simply to hear the testimonials of abuse survivors, teach bishops in attendance about the Church’s procedures regarding abusive clergy, and seek forgiveness. Other prominent leaders within the church have also spoken out about the summit, stressing the need to hold abusive clergy accountable and restore the Church’s credibility.


Activists for abuse survivors have heavily criticized the summit, honing in on the reflection points Francis presented at the beginning. One common criticism was the omission from the text of procedures for dealing with bishops that have been guilty of perpetrating cover-ups of abuse by priests. Critics also touched upon the Church’s delay in responding to the abuse, of which the majority known cases began in the 1960s.


However, the first revelations of abuse within the church happened in 1985, when Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana priest, admitted to abusing 37 boys. Gauthe ultimately pled guilty to 34 criminal counts and received a sentence of 20 years in prison, getting released after serving 10 years.


The next big revelation came in 2002, with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team publishing an explosive report on clerical abuse in Boston, Massachusetts. Through a database developed by the newspaper, the team was able to track clergy assignments, which then led to the revelation that the many priests involved in abuse cases under the Archdiocese of Boston had, over a 10-year period, had their cases settled; in total, the Spotlight Team found, the database found that 102 priests had been placed on sick leave or removed from parish assignments in other ways during the 1990s, with 30 settlements. The most well-known is perhaps John Geoghan, a former priest accused of sexual abuse by more than 130 people and ultimately sentenced to prison.


Seven years later came another scandal for the Church. In 2009, an Irish government report revealed that the Archdiocese of Dublin, had, among other Irish Church authorities, had covered up incidents of clerical abuse during the 29-year period from 1975 to 2004. It involved complaints that had been filed against 46 priests, 11 of whom had pled guilty to or ended up getting convicted of sexual assault on children. This scandal was followed by another a year later, in 2010, when allegations of abuse came from multiple countries, among them Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Brazil.


The scandal finally reached its tipping point in 2018. Last year, a Pennsylvania grand jury published a report uncovering decades of abuse implicating more than 300 priests, which had ultimately been covered up by bishops. The same year, through a report commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, the German branch of the Catholic Church admitted that at least 3,677 people had been abused by more than 1,600 priests and other clerical members in the 68-year period from 1946 to 2014. 2018 also saw the beginning of nuns accusing priests of sexual abuse.


Of the cover-ups occurring within the church, Alice Wu ‘20 states that “no one really wants to…point out what’s been happening in the dark, because they’re afraid of backlash…which is aggravating since abused children deserve a word put out for them.” A sophomore that wishes to remain anonymous gives similar views that the scale of the scandal was “very surprising and not okay,” and expresses disbelief as to “how it lasted that long.”


Given the explosive nature of recent revelations, all eyes are falling upon the Church to observe its next move–ultimately, one that will decide its future in the eyes of the public and the rest of the world.