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Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

How the panic developed

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A moral panic surfaced in early 2002, alleging widespread child and youth sexual abuse by priests and at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.

In a process that has been called "Taking out the trash" or "spreading the garbage," many boards of education in North America have adopted a simple response to allegations of sexual abuse of young people by its teachers. The alleged offender is simply transferred to another jurisdiction with a letter of recommendation. In the Roman Catholic church, this process is called "reinsertion." 1 Sometimes, the alleged offender is temporarily routed through a treatment center, where the cure rate tends to be quite low. In the new location, the offender is then free to select new victims.

Rumors of widespread sexual abuse of minors by a small percentage of Roman Catholic clergy has been circulating for decades. Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, was once assigned to the Vatican Embassy in Washington. He "...worked closely with the bishops in the 1980s and urged them -- unsuccessfully -- to adopt a national policy on pedophilia." 2

He co-authored a manual in 1985 in which he warned about "a real, present danger" to the church. He predicted future lawsuits that would result in legal claims of a billion dollars. 3 His warnings were largely ignored. As of 2002-MAY, Doyle's estimate was almost exactly correct. By mid-2005, the Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S.had paid a total of over $1.5 billion dollars in settlements since 1950. Estimates of the final figure have reached $3 billion.

Fr. Doyle has explained:

"...when we attempted to get the manual, at least accepted and considered by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, we were stonewalled by the general secretariat of the bishop's conference. And many of the bishops never had the opportunity to even know that it existed. And what needs to be known is that this manual did not come into existence, these statements, out of a vacuum. We had consulted with a number of bishops and archbishops, and a couple of cardinals, and received a lot of encouragement. The manual was sent to all the diocesan bishops in the United States in December of 1985. What effect it had immediately I'll never know because we received no feedback whatsoever." 3

But it was not until the diocese of Boston, MA became the focal point of a major scandal in 2002-JAN, that clergy abuse became a major public concern. Documents indicated that Cardinal Bernard Law had allegedly "protected and reassigned two particularly unrepentant priests he was told were serial child abusers, Paul Shanley and John Geoghan." 4 Both are now in jail and accused of having abused 130 children over 30 years. After "proclaiming there were no more accused priests in his archdiocese [Cardinal Law] combed his personal files...and provided the authorities with 80 more names." 4

Another major news item was the resignation of the Catholic bishop of Palm Beach, FL: Anthony J. O'Connell. Back in the early 1970's when he was the rector of a Missouri junior seminary, he allegedly sexually abused a thirteen-year old student. O'Connell's victim allegedly disclosed that he had sought help after having been previously abused by two other priests, only to allegedly have O'Connell become his third attacker. O'Connell then moved on to become bishop of Palm Beach, "replacing the previous prelate who had to resign after admitting to the molestation of boys." 5

Other dioceses across the U.S. were then motivated to release information about allegations of sexual abuse in their areas. A moral panic rapidly developed among the membership of the church, and the rest of the public. The media developed a feeding frenzy.

Commonweal Magazine commented:

"There doesn't seem to be a pundit or a public figure, from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, to television commentator Mike Barnicle, to President George W. Bush and the pope, who hasn't commented on the scandal. All have condemned the abuse of children, most have called for the church to be more attentive to victims and forthcoming with law enforcement officials, and may have wondered aloud whether the exclusively male and celibate culture of the church's hierarchy has fostered an environment hospitable to such abuse." 6

The Roman Catholic church may have lost some of its moral courage, at least temporarily. When Rev. Duane Motley, president of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms was interviewed on the Mars Hill Radio Network (WMRH, Syracuse NY; WMHN, Rochester, NY; WMHI Cape Vincent NY) on 2002-APR-19, he commented that he used to work side-by-side with Catholic activists in the New York legislature, to oppose abortion access, equal rights for gays and lesbians, and similar legislation. But since the sex abuse scandal hit the news, the Catholic activists have been keeping a low profile; he has been working essentially alone to promote the conservative Christian perspective on legislation.

A USA Today/Gallup poll taken among the general public during 2002-MAR found that:

bullet 72% of Roman Catholics said that the church leadership has done a bad job dealing with sexual abuse by priests,
bullet 74% said that the church is more concerned with protecting its own image than with solving the problem. 7

The church leadership had a long way to go in order to restore the confidence of the laity.

Previous moral panics:

Earlier panics in America have included:

bullet The Salem Witch trials in the 1690's.
bullet Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt in the early 1950's.
bullet The great Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax of the 1980's and early 1990's.
bullet The multi-victim, multi-offender ritual abuse scare involving students at preschools and day care centers in the 1980's and early 1990's.

One common feature of previous panics was that the number of innocent adults whose lives were ruined in the resulting witch hunt greatly outnumbered the guilty individuals. It remains to be seen whether this moral panic has the same tragic outcome.


  1. Scott Simmie, "Victim abused by priest: 'Floodgates will open'," The Toronto Star, 2002-MAR-24, at:
  2. Rev. Richard P. McBrien, "Gays in the priesthood," Tidings Online, at:
  3. "Meet the Press transcript," 2002-MAR-31, at:
  4. "Abuse hurt church: Cardinal: Boston prelate surfaces to say he'll act on scandal," Reuters, 2002-APR-21.
  5. Paul Baumann, "Mud in your eye: The sex-abuse scandal as seen from the pews," Commonweal, 2002-APR-5, Page 8.
  6. "The Whole Story," Commonweal, 2002-APR-5, Page 5.
  7. "Meet the Press transcript," 2002-MAR-31, at:

Copyright 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-22
Latest update: 2009-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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