By Timothy D. Lytton; Harvard University Press, 2008, 286 pp.
Twenty-five years ago residents of Henry, Louisiana were stunned to discover that Father Gilbert Gauthe, a charismatic Catholic priest who took their kids boating, camping, and fishing, had molested dozens of prepubescent boys.
When the facts emerged, the local Bishop quickly removed Gauthe from the parish and sent him into treatment. The diocese also offered to pay for counseling for the children he’d abused. Despite these steps, the Bishop refused to publicly disclose the reasons for Gauthe’s abrupt departure.
This didn’t sit well with many of the families whose sons had been violated and they sued Gauthe, the Bishop, and the Archbishop of New Orleans, charging that the clerical hierarchy had conspired to keep Gauthe’s behavior hidden from churchgoers. Shortly thereafter the suits were settled and both sides agreed to stay quiet about the terms of the deal.
Although the records were initially sealed, additional lawsuits by aggrieved parties eventually led the court to void the secrecy agreement. In short order, the scandal hit the local, then national, press.
Depositions and church files obtained through discovery and publicized by print media and TV newscasters revealed several sordid facts, among them that Gauthe’s history of sexual misconduct dated back to 1971. Church bureaucrats knew it, although unsuspecting parishioners did not.
"As litigation unfolded, plaintiff attorney J. Minos Simon and investigative reporter Jason Berry uncovered other priests known by church officials to have sexually molested children within the diocese, as well as other similar cases around the country," Timothy Lytton writes in Holding Bishops Accountable.
By June 1985, abuse allegations were being reported in California, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. A scandal of unprecedented proportions was brewing, one that would eventually result in 10,667 mostly-male victims coming forward to charge parish priests with sexually abusing them between 1950 and 2002. Some 4,392 priests—4 percent of the U.S. total—were involved, costing the church $2.6 billion in settlements and sending between 250 and 300 men to jail.
It’s staggering and Lytton, a professor of law at Albany Law School, has done a superb job of writing about the three most egregious cases—those of Father Gauthe, Father James Porter, and Father John Geoghan. At the same time, the book never addresses why so many sexually tormented men are drawn to the priesthood or whether the church’s elevation of priestly celibacy exacerbates the human desire to engage in prohibited behaviors. Perhaps that’s another book.
Instead, Lytton successfully documents the use of litigation to force the church to change its policies, moving from cover-ups to transparency. He further describes the collaboration between litigators and journalists to publicize transgressions and efforts to protect youth from them. "Clergy sexual abuse litigation has enhanced policy making," he writes. "Litigation led the news media to report clergy sexual abuse and to frame it as an issue of institutional failure…. Litigation and the news media coverage it generated placed this issue on public and institutional agendas and put pressure on policymakers to address it."
Indeed, as coverage of abuse hit front pages and airwaves, hundreds of people who’d been silent for decades felt validated and began to speak out. Likewise, church officials, from Bishops to Archbishops to Cardinals and the Pope, were forced to concede that quietly removing priests or transferring them to other posts was a failed strategy. Lastly, state law enforcers and lawmakers acknowledged that giving religious offenders a pass on sexual misconduct served no one, even as it sought to protect the good name of the church.
But this is not to suggest that the church acquiesced easily. In the Gauthe case, defense counsel tried to tar the boys’ parents for filing the lawsuit and subjecting their children to questioning. In other cases, they smeared the plaintiffs as liars or money-grubbers, as if they were suing out of greed. In one case the church intimated that parents were negligent for allowing their offspring to spend unsupervised time with local priests. According to this argument, the parents should have suspected that their sons were doing more than lighting candles and assisting with liturgy. Other defenses suggested that the lawsuits were motivated by anti-Catholic bigotry. Needless to say, these arguments backfired in all but one case.
In that incident, a man who claimed that his memories of abuse surfaced during hypnosis, later recanted. While this cast suspicion on the hypnotic method of memory recovery, it did little to tarnish the credibility of claimants who knew what had happened to them, when, and by whom.
Lytton writes that complainants’ vehement assertions about pastoral wrongdoing captured the sympathies and outrage of people across the globe and galvanized a movement. Still, he is most heartened by shifts in diocesan and state legislative policy to better protect young people from sexual exploitation. Since the 2002 Geoghan cases—Father Geoghan is alleged to have hurt approximately 800 kids—nearly half the state legislatures have considered ways to crack down on sexual predators, from eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to prosecuting priests who fail to report suspected misconduct to authorities.
What’s more, the church is on notice that it will be held accountable for child endangerment. As for law enforcement, Lytton writes that agencies have "become increasingly well prepared to press criminal charges." Longstanding fears about embarrassing church authorities now yield to protecting children from rapists and fondlers.
This is, of course, great news. At the same time, the fact that people in positions of religious and secular authority continue to maul children and adolescents remains troubling, especially since pedophilia shows no sign of abating.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist whose work appears regularly in the Brooklyn Rail, L Magazine, Z, the Indypendent, and other publications.