Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy
How the panic developed
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
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.
"...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."
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."
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:
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."
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
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:
|72% of Roman Catholics said that the church leadership has done a bad job
dealing with sexual abuse by priests, |
|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:
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
- Scott Simmie, "Victim abused by priest: 'Floodgates will open'," The Toronto Star, 2002-MAR-24, at:
- Rev. Richard P. McBrien, "Gays in the priesthood," Tidings Online,
- "Meet the Press transcript," 2002-MAR-31, at:
- "Abuse hurt church: Cardinal: Boston prelate surfaces to say he'll act on scandal," Reuters, 2002-APR-21.
- Paul Baumann, "Mud in your eye: The sex-abuse scandal as seen from the
pews," Commonweal, 2002-APR-5, Page 8.
- "The Whole Story," Commonweal, 2002-APR-5, Page 5.
- "Meet the Press transcript," 2002-MAR-31, at:
Copyright © 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2002-APR-22
Latest update: 2009-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson