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Child and youth sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

Part 1: Overview:
Introduction; The Church and the cover up;
How common is/was the abuse?

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Introduction to clergy abuse:

Whenever one person is in a position of authority over another, there is an enhanced possibility of emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, and/or sexual abuse. Of these, sexual abuse of children and youth are generally considered the most heinous. When the abuser is a clergyperson -- an individual who is expected to act at the highest spiritual and moral level -- the public becomes particularly outraged. Such abuse represents a gross violation of trust and a massive misuse of human sexuality by a perpetrator who is supposed to be among the most trustworthy. When the church leadership systematically conceals sexual abuse, the public can go ballistic.

Donald Cozzens reported that "by the end of the mid 1990s, it was estimated that some six hundred priests had been named in abuse cases and more than half a billion dollars had been paid in jury awards, settlements and legal fees."1 The latter grew to about one billion dollars by 2002 and continues to increase.

The Roman Catholic Church has been the focal point of a great deal of public anger. Unfortunately, it has been largely misdirected:

bullet The vast majority of abuse by priests who victimize minors -- persons under the age of 18 -- has taken the form of ephebophilia 2 -- involving post-pubertal youths who are often 16 or 17 years of age.

bullet Yet most of the public has concluded from the media that most of the abuse is taking the form of pedophilia 3 -- involving young, pre-pubertal children under the age of 11.

In 2004-FEB, CNN was able to view a draft copy of a survey prepared by the church. It reveals that 4,450 of the 110,000 Roman Catholic clergy (4%) who served between 1950 and 2002 have been accused of molesting minors. This has resulted in 11,000 individual abuse claims filed against Catholic clergy during that interval. More details

In 2005-FEB, Dr. Kathleen McChesney of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the crisis is not yet over because thousands of victims across the country are still reporting the abuse. She said:

"In 2004, at least 1,092 allegations of sexual abuse were made against at least 756 Catholic priests and deacons in the United States. Most of the alleged incidents occurred between 1965 and 1974. What is over is the denial that this problem exists, and what is over is the reluctance of the church to deal openly with the public about the nature and extent of the problem." 4

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About the Roman Catholic Church and its cover ups of abuse:

Some investigators have been reporting for decades that many dioceses within the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. have been routinely covering up sexual abuse by its ephebophile 2and pedophile 3 priests.

On policy matters, the Church has been quite decentralized; each bishop establishes his diocese's own methods of handling this problem. This changed in 2002 when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops developed a unified policy, had it approved by the Vatican, and implemented it.

Many dioceses had found it expedient in the past to pay off the victims and their families with hush money. Generally, a confidentiality agreement was a standard part of these settlements. 5 Perhaps because of the church's tradition of forgiveness and perhaps out of an unrealistic belief in the effectiveness of therapy, the dioceses often routed abusive priests through residential treatment centers, and later reassigned them to a different parish. Unfortunately, this often resulted in a whole new group of children being abused.

The Seattle Archdiocese broke new ground under then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in the late 1980's. They created a new sex-abuse policy which involved the creation of semi-independent review panels composed of both Catholics and non-Catholics. The panels have included therapists, attorneys, prosecutors, church-law experts, and priests. It is headed by a bishop. They hear from accusers, review psychological evaluations of the alleged abusers, and listen to testimony from counselors. The panel makes recommendations to the Archbishop which may include having the priest defrocked or ordering him to undergo psychological treatment. According to author Jason Berry, "Hunthausen was really the first archbishop to deal with this problem publicly. The fact that Hunthausen spoke out and was so forthright — you cannot underestimate a statement like that." Berry added that certain aspects of the policy were "pioneering" efforts at the time. These included reaching out to victims, and making sure that perpetrators weren't shuffled from parish to parish. 6,7

Although many books on clergy abuse were written during the 1990's, it wasn't until allegations surfaced of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in the Boston, MA area during 2002-JAN that a moral panic materialized among the public. It has since spread across the U.S. During the first half of 2002, about 300 of the 46,000 priests currently serving in the U.S. were relieved of duty over abuse allegations. 8 This represents about  0.65% of the total population of priests. Allegations of new instances of child and youth sexual abuse appear frequently in the media. Hundreds of priests and at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. have been accused.

After a 16 month investigation, the Massachusetts Attorney General's office issued a 76 page report in late 2003-JUL which concluded that Roman Catholic priests and other workers in the Boston Archdiocese probably molested more than 1,000 people over six decades. Attorney General Tom Reilly blamed church leaders for the abuse. He said:

"The mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable....The choice was very clear, between protecting children and protecting the church. They made the wrong choice. In effect, they sacrificed children for many, many years."  Attorney Jeffrey Newman, whose firm represents more than 200 alleged victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese said: 'The fact is that a group of lawless rogues were allowed to reside in our community and to harm our children under the protections of the freedom of religion and the First Amendment, and this simply cannot be allowed in the future'."

No church leaders could be charged, because the state's incredibly weak statute of limitations laws for child abuse crimes made this impossible. 9

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How common is the abuse?

In moral panics, as in wars, truth is often the first victim. There is massive speculation about the scope of the abuse. But there is also an almost complete lack of reliable data. Much heat is being generated, and very little light. Some claim that sexual abuse by priests is quite common; others claim that:

"There is no good data either from the general population or from the priesthood about numbers of pedophiles or people who have a vulnerability that increases their risk to children. The issue of sexuality, particularly of people who may have unusual kinds of sexual cravings, has been one that society has tended to sweep under the carpet. Getting that data is terribly important, but as of now I know of no systematic surveys that would allow us to come to any firm conclusions." 10

Two widely circulated estimates suggest that approximately 2% to 6% of Roman Catholic priests abuse children and youths. This compares with other common estimates: that perhaps 1% of all adults and 2% of all adult males are abusive pedophiles. However, priests have freer access to many children than does the average male. His position of authority and trust can facilitate abuse. Thus the number of abused young people per abusive priest may well be larger than for the average molester. William Reid has written that "careful studies have indicated...that child molesters commit an average of sixty offenses for every incident that comes to public attention." 11 But Thomas Fox estimated that the "average pedophile priest abuses 285 victims." 12

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This overview is continued in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Donald B. Cozzens, "The changing face of the priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000). Chapter 8, "Betraying Our Young" Page 125. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Adults who are sexually attracted to post-pubertal youth.
  3. Adults who are sexually attracted to pre-pubertal children.
  4. Keith Peters, "Catholic Bishops Issue Update on Child Abuse Scandal," Family News in Focus, 2005-FEB-21, at:
  5. "Attorneys say more sex-abuse cases against priests are likely," Albany, NY, Associated Press, 2002-MAY-26.
  6. Ray Rivera, "High-profile panelists hearing priest case," Seattle Times, 2002-MAY-17, at:
  7. Jason Berry, "Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," University of Illinois Press, (Reprinted 2000).
  8. Richard Ostling, "Catholic review board on priestly abuse holds first meeting amid victim complaints," Associated Press, 2002-JUL-30.
  9. Denise Lavoie, "Mass. reports 1,000 church abuse victims," Associated Press, 2003-JUL-24, at:
  10. "Interview with Frederick S. Berlin," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1997-SEP-8, at:
  11. William H. Reid, The Psychiatric Times, 1988-APR-24. Quoted in: A. W. Richard Sipe, "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," Brunner/Mazel, (1995).
  12. Thomas C. Fox, "Sex and power issues expand clergy-lay rift," National Catholic Reporter, 1992-NOV-13, Pages 17 to 19.
  13. "Draft survey: 4,450 priests accused of sex abuse. Bishop: 'Very sobering and important milestone',", 2004-FEB-17, at:
  14. Keith Peters, "Catholic Bishops Issue Update on Child Abuse Scandal," Family News in Focus, 2005-FEB-21, at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAY-8
Latest update: 2011-SEP-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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