Written by Laura Davies
Today, the Pope admits that 2% of the Catholic clergy are paedophiles. This in itself is an outrage, but it’s made worse when you realise that this has been true for hundreds of years. The fact that it’s been allowed to continue is one of the vilest failings of the Catholic Church.
In 1531, the Lateran Council in Rome attempted to include in a public decree that cardinals should not keep as many boys for their personal use. However, the statement had to be removed after Pope Leo X demanded it because “otherwise it would have been spread throughout the whole world how openly and shamelessly the pope and the cardinals in Rome practice sodomy.”
A sentiment that would be continued throughout the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. The issue wasn’t that their priests, bishops, and cardinals were raping children; it was that if the news got out, it would be terrible for PR. The answer wasn’t to stop their members from abusing kids, it was to keep it quiet.
So started the tradition of hiding crimes of sexual abuse from both the public and law enforcement. All cases were treated as purely internal matters. As Bishop Wilton Gregory put it after a meeting about the management of child abuse in the Catholic church, “The Pope “gets it”, but the Church “doesn’t do crime. It does sin.”
Bishops also masked the crimes of priests in their personnel files with words like “tickling,” “wrestling,” or “entangled friendships.” Of course, what they really meant was grooming, molestation, and rape. They adopted a policy of deny, deny, deny. And if that didn’t work, blame, shame, and pay the victims for their silence.
The only real effort made by the Church in preventing abuse was the so-called “treatment centers.” One example is The Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico, founded by Father Gerald in 1947. His vision was to create a place of safety where priests and other members of the religious community who suffered from alcohol or substance abuse issues could be rehabilitated. He believed each problem could be treated spiritually with prayer and Eucharistic adoration and, once cured, his patients could return to their previous roles, all be it in a new diocese.
However, by 1948, priests began arriving at his door with another issue altogether. They’d sexually assaulted minors. Fitzgerald’s initial reaction was to treat them in the same way as if they suffered from addiction, with spiritual regimes. Unfortunately, this was unsuccessful, and he quickly came to believe that treating a paedophile was futile. They were incurable.
In a letter to an archbishop, Fitzgerald wrote, “Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and neighbourhood for us to be justified in receiving them here.” In another, he wrote that “repentance and amendment in such cases is superficial and, if not formally, at least subconsciously, is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures.”
Unfortunately, none of his superiors agreed, and this posed a problem for Fitzgerald. He was supposed to rehabilitate abusive priests and send them back into the community, but he was certain they’d abuse more children, and refreshingly, that didn’t sit right with him. His solution was to send all paedophiles to live on an island, alone, and even put down a deposit of $5,000 on an island in Barbados for the purpose. In a 1957 letter to an unnamed archbishop, he wrote
“It is for this class of rattlesnake I have always wished the island retreat—but even an island is too good for these vipers of whom the Gentle Master said it were better they had not been born.”
He also began writing to bishops, advising laicization, the removal of religious standing, and immediate retirement inside monastery walls for any priest accused of “tampering with the innocence of little ones”. When that didn’t work, he turned to Vatican officials, and eventually Pope Paul VI himself.
Still, no one listened for over 50 years. Part of the problem was that Fitzgerald resisted any medical or psychological treatment, relying only on spiritual recovery. This lost him respect as many felt the priests could be treated, just not with Fitzgerald’s methods. The other issue was his “Send them all to a desert island plan,” was a bit too out there for his critics.
The tragedy of this is that many of the men treated in the facility were released as priests who went on to abuse again. Fitzgerald lost control of the facility to those favouring more modern treatment methods and died in 1969. His center was forced to close in the 1990’s as a result of the many lawsuits brought against it by those who’d become the victims of the priests who’d supposedly been cured there.
Reports of Abuse Reach the Public
Despite the fact that the entire Catholic Church had full knowledge of the abuses that were taking place, the majority of the general public still had no idea. That was until 1984, when a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe, became the first Catholic priest to face a widely publicized criminal trial for child sexual abuse.
He wasn’t much of a priest. He failed several classes at two seminaries but somehow managed to be ordained. He once confided in his brother, who was also a paedophile, that he didn’t feel any great commitment to the church, he was only in it for the unlimited access to young boys.
Shortly after his first posting, Gauthe began assaulting the sons of his parishioners. He demanded silence from his victims. In one case, he told a boy that he’d kill his dad and use his position as a priest to make sure he went to hell if he ever told anyone.
Each time the rumours about Gauthe’s crimes began to spread, his Bishop, Gerard Frey, would send him for counselling and then post him to a new town. Frey also told the parents of the victims that they must take their sons to confession and repent for their role in the crimes. He even made Gauthe chaplain of the boy scouts.
Finally, in 1984, his attacks were halted as a number of his victims’ parents brought suits against the diocese. At first, the church, sticking to its policy of protecting itself, rather than its young parishioners, paid to settle out of court. However, they met their match with Lafayette lawyer, J. Minos Simon. He refused to settle, forcing a public and criminal case against Gauthe.
The Gauthe case was hard to stomach, even for his lawyer, Ray Mouton, who lost his family, friends, and faith in the church whilst defending him. Gauthe had assaulted 37 boys in total, and the church had known about them all. Mouton had taken the case as he believed Gauthe to be an outlier and wanted to defend the church. However, as he dug further, he found seven other paedophile priests just in the Lafayette diocese, and no one was doing anything to stop them from offending.
Gauthe’s trial ended with a very lenient sentence. He pled guilty to 33 counts of child abuse and was given a 20-year sentence. He only served 10. On his release, he moved to Texas, where it wasn’t long before he was charged with molesting a 3-year-old boy. He pled guilty again and this time was given a 7-year probation. Rather unjustly, he retired to live out his life peacefully in a small town in Texas.
The Extent of the Problem
So, Mouton had uncovered a massive issue within the Lafayette diocese, but how deep was the rot and how far did it go? He joined forces with two others, the Reverend Michael Peterson and Canon Lawyer, Thomas Doyle, who also believed Gauthe was not an aberration, but a small part of a systemic problem Together they travelled the country compiling a report, written for the Vatican, on the extent of paedophilia within the U.S. church.
After several months, they concluded the worst, they’d been right and the issue was widespread. They warned that if nothing was done, payouts could reach $1 billion, the reputation of the church could be shredded, and an untold amount of suffering would be put upon the children of the church.
Based on their findings, they recommended five steps to deal with any future reports of abusive priests. Step one: The abuser should be removed from his post. Step two: Refer him for medical evaluation and treatment. Three: Comply with civil law, something the church had been bypassing until Gauthe. Four: Reach out to victims and their families, and Five; Be open with members of the affected communities.
While these were clearly reasonable steps, the church ignored them. Partly for reasons of internal politics, partly because the suggestion of complying with civil law was offensive to the church, and partly because the suggestion of being open about cases could further endanger the Catholic reputation. They were very much of the view that as many cases should be covered up as possible.
The Boston Globe
Fortunately for civilians, and unfortunately for the Church, they wouldn’t be able to hide the extent of their paedophilia problem under the guise of “isolated incidents” for much longer. In 2002, the Boston Globe published “Spotlight Investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church.”
The investigation began with five reporters digging into the case of Reverend John Geoghan. Throughout the 90s, victims had been coming forward with their harrowing accounts of abuse at his hands, including a woman who alleged he’d sexually abused all three of her sons, and a 22-year-old man who revealed Geoghan had assaulted him when he was 7. By the year 2000, 70 people had accused him of sexual abuse.
The Church took action in 1998 by defrocking him, the most severe sanction under canon law, and his case made the papers a few times. However, as far as anyone knew, he was just another lone offender, not representative of the church as a whole. That is, until the Globe reporters dug a little deeper.
Just before Marty Baron, began his new role as editor, he’d noted a reference to Geoghan’s court documents in one of the Globe’s columns. It mentioned that they’d been sealed. So, on his first day of the job, he asked his reporters if they’d ever attempted to get access. No one had. So they sent their lawyers to court.
They successfully managed to sue the Archdiocese of Boston to open the files of Geoghan and 84 other sexually abusive priests. The Archdiocese had appealed in an attempt to keep the skeletons firmly in their closet, but were unsuccessful, and so the contents of the documents were revealed.
What they discovered was far more shocking than they’d imagined. Not only did they uncover the true extent of Geoghan’s crimes, they also found out that the church had full knowledge of them, had reassigned him to new parishes multiple times, and had tried to cover it all up.
Over the course of his 30-year career, Geoghan had assaulted over 150 boys. On several occasions, the news of his crimes reached his superiors, including the then archbishop, Bernard Law. But, instead of defrocking him and handing him into the authorities, Law simply sent him for treatment at one of the church’s “facilities” and then put him back to work.
Victims who’d come forward with their stories had been paid off for their silence and had their records sealed. Before his eventual conviction, the archdiocese had paid out $10 million to 50 separate victims.
The Globe’s reporting was the spark that was needed. The District Attorney for Massachusetts impanelled a Grand Jury to investigate the treatment of sexual abusers by the church. Through 100 hours of depositions, 500 formally secret files, and 30,000 pages of various documents, they proved that the failures weren’t isolated to Bernard Law. The leadership through at least 3 archbishops, spanning 60 years had reassigned abusers, covered up crimes, and paid victims for their silence.
In December 2002, Law resigned as Archbishop. It would be nice to think the church was ashamed of him and his actions, but no. He was instead given a position in the Roman Curia, named Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and was even allowed to preside over one of the Pope’s funeral masses. Not the acts of a church that disagreed with his actions.
Geoghan suffered a more fitting fate. In February 2002, he was found guilty of indecent assault and battery for groping a 10-year-old boy and sentenced to nine years in prison. You might consider that too short a sentence for his crimes, and his fellow inmate, Joseph Druce, would agree with you.
Druce spoke to Geoghan about his assaults on children several times and was met with arrogance and a complete lack of remorse. Druce, himself, had been molested as a child, so he spent a month planning to kill Gauthe, considering him a “prize”.
So, on the 23rd of August 2003, Druce followed Geoghan into his cell and jammed the door to prevent any guards from interrupting. Then he bound and gagged Geoghan with a sheet and repeatedly jumped on him from the bed and beat him. When guards eventually managed to access the room, there was no doubt that Geoghan was dead.
Paedophile Priests Were Everywhere
The Spotlight investigation not only triggered other dioceses and other countries to launch their own investigations, but it also empowered victims to come forward. The US has received 11,000 individual complaints of abuse. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland combined estimate 15,000; France has revealed their number to be 333,000, and Italy suspects around 1 million of their children have been abused by a Catholic priest.
In Australia, the Catholic Church had secretly paid out $276.1 million in compensation, and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that 7% of all Catholic priests in Australia were “alleged perpetrators of child sex abuse”. Payments in the US totalled $3 billion and, rightly, many dioceses had to sell off churches and schools to afford it. Disappointingly others transferred the majority of their assets to parishes and foundations before declaring bankruptcy as a way to reduce payments to the victims.
The Popes’ Reactions
Pope John Paul II was the first to acknowledge the crisis publically, but he did a poor job. While he did condemn the abuse of minors as an “appalling sin”, he put most of the focus on treatment, cures, and Christian conversion for the sinners, not on justice for those his priests abused.
Pope Benedict fared a bit better. He handed over control of the cases of abuse to the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith, which improved the process. Under his service 384 priests were defrocked, he met with victims, and he also ordered an investigation into abuse by influential Mexican priest Marcial Degollado. This convinced many that he was taking the issue seriously, especially when he sentenced Degollado to a life of seclusion, penance, and prayer until his death.
However, there’s also a fair amount he could be criticised for. For example, he allowed Bishop Robert Finn to remain in office after failing to report finding child porn on a junior priest’s computer, and in 2010, it emerged that he himself might have been guilty of the same crime as Bernard Law. In the 1980s, as archbishop in Munich, he’d overseen the transfer of an abusive German priest into therapy and then reentry into pastoral work. That priest went on to commit further sexual abuse and was later prosecuted.
On his election in 2013, Pope Francis called for decisive action on the issue and called any priests guilty of child abuse “tools of Satan”. He also acknowledged past failings in a 2018 open letter to the “People of God.” In it he stated, “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” A truth that’s both heartbreaking and infuriating.
During his time as Pope, he’s explicitly criminalised sexual abuse under Vatican law. He also removed the discretionary power of high-ranking church officials to cover up, and has made several other useful changes to attempt to deal with the 2000 case backlog. However, many would argue he hasn’t gone far enough. Others would describe his response as shamefully poor.
For example, during a trip to Chile, where he was meant to apologise and rebuild trust, he made some statements that victims regarded more as a slap in the face than an apology. He was discussing Bishop Juan Barros, who’s accused of covering up the child abuse committed by his priest, Fernando Karidima. Instead of speaking openly and with respect, the Pope went on the defensive, saying, “The day they bring me proof against the bishop, then I will speak. There is not a single proof against him. This is calumny! Is that clear?”
The Fate of the Priests
Tragically, as the average age of victims coming forward is 52, most reported cases lie outside the statute of limitations. This has resulted in the majority of abusive priests escaping justice. A 2004, study found only 6% of accused priests were convicted and only 2% have received prison sentences. In the US, it’s estimated that 5,000 priests have abused children. Of these, only 150 have been prosecuted.
What’s worse is that, having not entered the criminal justice system, these ex-priests are now living their lives completely unsupervised. In 2019, a study found that nearly 1,700 Catholic priests who were credibly accused of child abuse are currently unsupervised by either the church or civil law enforcement. This means they are working with kids, living next to schools, and even fostering children. No one knows where they are.
There’s another issue too. People and the Catholic Church often discuss the child abuse cases as if they’re a thing of the past. The devastating truth is that they’re not. In 2014, Pope Francis himself admitted one in every 50 members of the Catholic clergy are paedophiles, and each year new cases of sexual assault are reported.
Victims come forward not necessarily because they expect the church to make amends, nothing could undo the damage done. They do so in an effort to save future children from the same types of assaults. Those who may currently be being victimised by the 1,700 who’ve never been brought to justice or the thousands of monsters who remain in the church.
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