The Catholic Church’s Sexual Abuse Scandal


Strategies used by the Church to cover up its worldwide sexual abuse scandal include: the Vatican’s refusal to cooperate with civil authorities; officially sanctioned priest shifting; the destruction of evidence; punishing whistleblowers and rewarding enablers; and blaming the victims.

At the end of February, the eyes of the world were on Pope Benedict XVI as he left the Vatican by helicopter to spend the final hours of what many would characterize as his scandal-dogged papacy at the papal summer retreat. According to the New York Times, “Onlookers in St. Peter’s Square cheered, church bells rang and Romans stood on rooftops to wave flags as he flew by.”

To the tens of thousands of survivors of the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandals, there was little to cheer about.

A Philadelphia Grand Jury report put the long-lived scandal in unambiguous terms: by sexual abuse, “We mean rape. Boys who were raped… girls who were raped…. But even those victims whose physical abuse did not include actual rape—those who were subjected to fondling, to masturbation, to pornography—suffered psychological abuse that scarred their lives and sapped the faith in which they had been raised.”

Aftershocks from the decades-long sexual abuse scandal continue to reverberate, even as the cardinals gathered to choose the next pope. The New York Times reported that Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the church in Scotland, “acknowledged…that he had been guilty of sexual misconduct, a week after he announced his resignation and said he would not attend the conclave to choose the next pope.”

The Times pointed out that Cardinal O’Brien was an outspoken and powerful “voice of the conservative orthodoxy on homosexuality that characterized the papacies of John Paul II, who elevated him, and Benedict. Abandoning the relatively tolerant approach to the issue he had adopted in the years before he donned a cardinal’s red hat, he condemned homosexuality as immoral and as a ‘grotesque subversion’.”

Other cardinals, including some from the United States, have also come under fire. The Washington Post described the case of Cardinal William Levada, a voter in the election of the next pope. “In 2004, a founding member of an independent review board investigating allegations of sexual abuse within Levada’s archdiocese in San Francisco resigned in protest, accusing Levada of blocking the release of the panel’s findings on sexual abuse allegations involving 40 priests. He was also sued by a whistleblower priest for retaliating against the priest for reporting suspected sexual assaults of altar boys by a fellow priest.”

Perhaps the most troubling case of all involves former Los Angeles Archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony, an outspoken supporter of Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union and an advocate for undocumented workers, who will also have a voice in determining the next pope. Mahony “prevented priests from seeking treatment by California therapists who would have been obligated to report suspected abuse and transferred offending priests to new diocese rather than reporting them to authorities,” the Washington Post reported. “Under Mahony, diocese officials advised an accused priest to stay out of Los Angeles to avoid lawsuits.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, previously the Archbishop of Milwaukee and now the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “authorized payments of tens of thousands of dollars to abusive Milwaukee priests as an incentive to retire,” the Post  pointed out. And Cardinal Bernard Law, who was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston in 2002 “after the Boston Globe  revealed his role in the cover-up of 250 priests and church workers who were accused of rape and sexual assault of children. After his resignation, he was appointed to a prized position in Rome.” Because of his advanced age, Law will not vote in the election, but his position does allow him significant influence.

Scandal of Historic Proportions

While many of us have heard survivors of predatory priests courageously telling their stories, the testimonies are still shocking. “Fighting for the Future: Adult Survivors Work to Protect Children & End the Culture of Clergy Sexual Abuse” a report submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), provided a snapshot of some of the testimony that surfaced at a Philadelphia Grand Jury: 

  • A girl, 11 years old, was raped by her priest and became pregnant. The priest took her in for an abortion.
  • A 5th-grader was molested by her priest inside the confessional booth.
  • A teenage girl was groped by her priest while she lay immobilized in traction in a hospital bed. The priest stopped only when the girl was able to ring for a nurse.
  • A boy was repeatedly molested in his school auditorium by his priest/teacher.
  • A priest, no longer satisfied with mere pederasty, regularly began forcing sex on two boys at once in his bed.
  • A boy woke up intoxicated in a priest’s bed to find the Father performing oral sex on him while three other priests watched and masturbated themselves.
  • A priest offered money to boys in exchange for sadomasochism,  directing them to place him in bondage, to “break” him, to make him their “slave.”
  • A 12-year-old was raped and sodomized by his priest, tried to commit suicide, and remains institutionalized in a mental hospital as an adult.
  • A priest who told a 12-year-old boy that his mother knew of and had agreed to the priest’s repeated rape of her son.
  • A boy who told his father about the abuse his younger brother was suffering was beaten to the point of unconsciousness. “Priests don’t do that,” said the father, as he punished his son for what he thought was a vicious lie against the clergy.

Keys to the Cover-Up

Fighting for the Future” pointed out the worldwide scope of the scandal: “The revelations of sexual violence by clergy…in recent years in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, the United States, and elsewhere demonstrate that the rates of abuse in any one country or diocese are not an anomaly but part of a much larger pattern and practice. In light of these revelations, some observers have estimated that the number of victims of sexual violence occurring between the years 1981-2005 is likely approaching 100,000, and will likely be far greater as more situations continue to come to light in Latin America and Africa.”

While the scope of the problem is huge, so too has been the Church-sanctioned cover-up, its refusal to cooperate with civil authorities, and the rampant reassignment of priests accused of sexual misconduct. “The vast majority of the priests who committed acts of sexual violence against children and vulnerable adults have faced no punishment or criminal sanction for their actions; many continue to work, and have privileged access to future victims because of their status as a member of the Catholic clergy,” the report noted.
 

  • “The high-level officials of the Church who failed to prevent and punish these criminal actions, and too often facilitated or enabled the acts of sexual violence described herein have, to date, enjoyed absolute impunity as well.” Under the heading, “The Policies and Practices of the Holy See Have Helped to Perpetuate the Crimes,” the report discusses four ways the church resisted accountability and taking responsibility.
  •  The Vatican leadership’s “refusal to cooperate with civil authorities.”
  • The “practice of ‘priest shifting,’ meaning bishops, cardinals, or other high-ranking officials have transferred known offenders to other locations where they continued to have access to children or vulnerable adults and who officials knew continued to commit rape and other acts of sexual violence.”
  • The “destruction of evidence and the obstruction of justice.”
  • The “rewarding of those members of the clergy who remained quiet or assisted in cover-ups, while punishing the whistleblowers, i.e., those who sought to prevent other children from being hurt and to have offender priests investigated and held accountable for the crimes they committed.”


Blaming the Victims

In late February, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) issued its report, and, according to a joint press release, “the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has summoned the Vatican to report on its record of ensuring children are protected from sexual violence and safeguarding children’s well-being and dignity, the first time the Holy See will have been called to account for its actions on these issues before an international body with authority.”

Pope Benedict XVI has retired—citing ill health and exhaustion—but he’s not going off the grid. Now that he’s no longer pope, isn’t it time to put him on record and find out what he knew about the Church’s sexual assault scandal? Given the Vatican’s nearly impenetrable wall of silence, it is doubtful that will ever happen.


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 Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements and politics.