Childhood Sex Abuse In The Catholic Church

Child sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests became one of the century’s biggest scandals when the Boston Globe’s 2003 investigation uncovered years of horrific abuse, kept largely secret by church officials. Since then, thousands of alleged victims have come forward. 

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Brian Kent “Covering up evidence of child sex abuse, as many believe the Catholic church has frequently done in cases of priest abuse, deprives abuse survivors of dignity and means for restitution. “

— Brian Kent, Esq.

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Ever since the 1950’s, widespread sexual abuse of children committed by priests has been a horrifying reality in the Catholic church. Yet it was only in the early 2000’s or so that the American public and the global community became acutely aware of the issue. Victim advocates and journalists believe that this latency period was anything but an accident. Many accuse church officials of purposefully covering up abuse in order to protect offending priests and to prevent any tarnishing of the Catholic church’s public image.

catholic church interiorSuch cover-ups not only did greater harm to victims by invalidating their experiences and depriving them of the ability to seek justice and closure, but also allowed priests to continue serving in the church and molesting more children. Such damaging, unconscionable behavior has led to thousands of lawsuits from abuse survivors and their families, accusing hundreds of dioceses of committing negligence and fraud. The church hierarchy has attempted to keep the scandal from escalating by meeting these complaints with multi-million dollar settlements, paying out billions of dollars to date.

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Decades Of Abuse Kept Under Wraps

Though public awareness of child sex abuse in the Catholic church was severely limited, despite its prevalence, until around the 1980’s, priests committing sexual abuse of children has actually been a longstanding problem in the Catholic church. Since at least the 1950’s, church officials have been sending offending priests to Servants of the Paraclete and other such congregational facilities aimed at helping clergy deal with serious personal issues including pedophilia. Gerald Fitzgerald, who founded Servants of the Paraclete, wrote letters warning church officials that pedophilia was a serious problem among priests and believed that “offenders were unlikely to change and should not be returned to ministry.”

In 2002, the Boston Globe covered the Catholic church scandal extensively. The magazine’s investigation and reporting of the scandal, which won a Pulitzer Prize, played an instrumental role in raising awareness of the crisis throughout the nation and eventually, worldwide. This widespread publicity had many positive effects—finally, Church officials, law enforcement, and government agencies were acknowledging the need for further investigation and starting to take appropriate action to combat the problem.

How Common Is Sex Abuse In Catholic Churches?

An estimate from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reveals that a total of 16,787 abuse survivors stepped forward between 1950 and 2012 to report sexual abuse committed by priests. However, the organization only counted reports it considered “credible” and doesn’t include any from 2003 for unnamed reasons. Thus, the true number of abuse victims is likely much higher, especially considering that many incidents of abuse, especially those occurring within religious organizations, still go unreported.

Victims Hold Church Administration Responsible

The Catholic church has been harshly criticized for its response to the sex abuse crisis. Victim advocates say that the way both individual dioceses and Vatican have handled the problem has in many cases only led to further abuse and stifled public awareness, a crucial force that enables more abuse survivors to step forward and start to heal from from their experiences.

Ineffective Handling Of Abuse Complaints

Tragically, it’s been common for reports from abuse survivors to be simply dismissed by the Church hierarchy, which allows each diocese to determine its own methods for “substantiating” cases. Sometimes, the requirements set for identifying “credible” abuse reports are unclear or even subject to change.. For example, a 2014 investigation conducted by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) revealed that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis used “difficult, vague, and shifting criteria” for deciding which allegations could be considered “credible.”

Even when church officials investigate complaints and substantial evidence or outright confessions of committing abuse, the priests responsible are not always appropriately punished, if they face any consequences at all for their despicable actions. Many priests are not reported to law enforcement and thereby avoid having to register as sex offenders. Shockingly, a large number of priests were not even dismissed from their positions, instead allowed to move to a different parish, where some went on to abuse even more children.

Many priests choose to step down after being exposed as child molesters, but some are actually offered considerable sums of money to leave the priesthood. For example,Timothy Dolan, who was the Archbishop of Milwaukee in 2003, gave priests over $20,000 each, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

Wave Of Sex Abuse Lawsuits Bankrupts Church

Over 3,000 civil lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic church by sex abuse survivors since the 1950’s. Some cases were resolved through millions of dollars in settlements, ultimately costing the church over $3 billion to date, says the National Catholic Reporter. And more allegations are constantly arising—it’s estimated that the 195 dioceses in the U.S. pay an average of $300,000 each year over child sex abuse charges. 6 dioceses have already filed for bankruptcy due financial losses from settlements.

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