Pay, Pray and Obey - Child Sex Abuse Scandals in the Catholic Church
Children are a gift from the Lord. They are a reward from Him— Psalms 127:3
For more than 20 years now clergy pedophilia has been the defining issue, and indeed the scourge, of the Catholic Church. Child sex abuse scandals have occurred in every country in which the Catholic church has a significant presence - from the USA and Ireland, to Tanzania, Germany and the Philippines. It's reached as far as my own country - New Zealand, where Fr Bernard McGrath preyed on boys at the Marist Bros Marylands School in Christchurch and later, on vulnerable adolescent streetkids at a charity he was appointed to run.
Even the Vatican has been implicated in covering up the abuse, through its mysterious 'Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' (the Vatican agency charged with investigating clergy abuse around the world on behalf of the Vatican). Some believe the scandals and coverups were a key factor in the early resignation/retirement of Pope Benedict.
Yet it's not entirely clear why this has become such a concern all of a sudden, since it's clear from the Church's own records that child sex abuse has been going on for nearly as long as the church itself. Is it the fact that the public and media are only now shining a light on the abuse?
In the 1980s, stories began to leak out about wayward, paedophile priests, who were preying mercilessly on altar boys and other young children and teenagers in the church. In the 1990s the clamour became stronger, and claims began to be made against the church.
However many would agree that it was the year 2002, when the Boston Globe newspaper broke the story of widespread child sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, that was the single most significant time in the history of this issue. From that time on, the Catholic church was permanently on the defensive, as news of other scandals reverberated around the globe.
Suddenly the church was reeling, as it sought to defend itself against allegations and claims ranging from grooming and indecent assault, to serious, ongoing sexual abuse of very young children (mostly boys). Worst of all was the dawning realisation by the victims and general public that church authorities (bishops, monsignors and cardinals) had attempted to cover up molesting priests, and had adopted a policy of moving them around from parish to parish, and sometimes to other parts of the country or even overseas, while avoiding reporting them to Police or other civil authorities, and refusing to defrock offending clergy.
It's a time of crisis; from which it remains to be seen if the Church can ever properly recover. Much may depend on how the church handles the issue from now on, and whether it can achieve the degree of honesty, transparency and accountability that victims deserve, and the public rightly demands.
In the remainder of this hub I look at some of the worst child sex abuse scandals in different parts of the world (and how they were dealt with), and I go on to consider the possible reasons why pedophilia has proved to be so prevalent for such a long time in the Catholic church. Finally I consider what can be done to protect vulnerable children and ensure this doesn't keep happening in the church.
There is not in the whole world a monster to be compared with a priest in the state of sin, for the unfortunate man will not bear with correction— St Jerome
Case Study 1: Scandal and Cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese
In early 2002 the Boston Globe, in a series of searing articles, exposed five serious cases of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston Archdiocese that were currently under investigation. Up until this time, most cases of child sex abuse around the world had been kept out of the public eye, and under wraps by the church -they had been dealt with entirely "in house". For the first time the tables were turned on the Church, and its sordid secrets were being made very public. Ultimately the Boston Globe was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its fearless reporting and services to the public in exposing the crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the American public was shocked and outraged as more information about the cases revealed that there was truth to the serious allegations, and also that the church had orchestrated a cover up of the abuse over several decades, and had moved the offending priests around from parish to parish -thus exposing them to new child victims, who they also abused.
Some of the most serious consequences of the scandal in Boston were that Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided over the Boston Archdiocese during much of the relevant period, and was personally responsible for covering up abuse and moving offending priests around to other parishes, was forced to resign from the Archdiocese.
Some of the key players in the scandal were:
Father John Geoghan - a childlike man
Fr Geoghan was one of the worst serial child sex abusers in the history of the Catholic church in America. For three decades he preyed on young boys in six different parishes in the Boston Archdiocese until he was finally defrocked in 1998. There were approximately 150 different victims of Geoghan who came forward with allegations of molestation ranging from fondling to rape, and Geoghan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the rape of a 10 year old boy in a swimming pool. Financial settlements were reached between the church and 86 victims of Geoghan. Geoghan was killed in prison by a fellow inmate in 2003. He had served only 18 months in prison by that stage.
Looking back, there were early clues Geoghan was unsuited to the priesthood. His instructors at the seminary where he trained described him as "immature", and questioned his suitability for priestly life. Early on in his predatory career, he targeted single mothers of young boys who lacked a father figure, and would often appear at suppertime to help them bathe or play with the kids while the mother prepared dinner. This was a chance for grooming and abuse.
Rev Joseph Birmingham - preyed on an Irish community in Salem
Up until his death in 1989, the Rev. Joseph Birmingham allegedly befriended and then abused at least 50 boys over a 29-year career as a priest in the Boston Archdiocese, and archdiocesan officials ignored numerous complaints against him. On several occasions Rev Birmingham admitted to Police and church officials that he had molested children, but he was allowed to continue in Ministry -insisting he had been "cured". Fr Birmingham's abuse of one man in Salem is depicted in the documentary film "Hand of God" made by Joe Cultrera in 2006.
Rev Paul Shanly - the "street preacher"
Rev Shanly ran a street Ministry for troubled boys in the 1960s and 70s. These included boys who had run away from home, who were alcoholics or drug addicts, criminals, or who struggled with sexual identity. Shanly used their vulnerability and (in some cases) sexual confusion to prey on them, and he also publicly advocated that sex between men and boys be made legal. Shanley was shuttled from parish to parish in the Boston Archdiocese, and eventually transferred to a California church with a letter of recommendation from one of Cardinal Bernard Law's top deputies.
In May 2002, Shanley was arrested in San Diego, where he had been living, and returned to Massachusetts to face 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault and battery stemming from his assignment at a Newton parish in the 1980s.
Rev Ronald Paquin - everyone's 'best friend'
During 20 years of ministry in the archdiocese, Rev Paquin often befriended young male parishioners and started molesting them. Although numerous complaints were made to the archdiocese over the years, Paquin was not removed from parish ministry until 1990. Even then, Paquin continued to molest one boy while he was living at a church treatment center in Milton, according to the victim.
Unusually for accused priests, Paquin has acknowledged his long history of abusive behavior. In December 2002, he became the first Boston clergyman to admit guilt in a criminal molestation case. Paquin pleaded guilty to three counts of raping a Haverhill boy and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison. He has agreed to testify against the Boston Archdiocese in other abuse cases. At least 28 civil lawsuits are still pending against him.
Rev Paquin claimed that he himself had been abused by a Catholic priest while growing up in Salem.
Cardinal Bernard Law - corrupt prelate
Cardinal Law was head of the Boston Archdiocese at the time much of the abuse occurred, and after diocesan papers were leaked to the press, it became clear he had covered up knowledge of or complaints against many abusing priests, and had simply shifted them to other parishes when allegations of abuse in one parish surfaced against a priest.
One example of this is Rev Paquin, referred to above. Cardinal Law reinstated Paquin to priestly duties as recently as 1998, and several of Law's former top aides - including current Bishop John McCormack of Manchester, N.H., and current Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y. - supported his return to ministry, even though they knew about multiple allegations against him. And despite Paquin's history, the archdiocese paid him a severance package of nearly $80,000 in 2000.
Bernard Law was made a cardinal of the Boston Archdiocese in 1985 -a time when child sex abuse cases were just beginning to come to the church's attention. When the Rev. James Porter abuse cases became public in the early 1990s, and again in January 2002 when the Globe revealed the extent of Rev. John Geoghan's abusive behavior, Cardinal Law characterized these as isolated incidents. But as documents began to be released by the church in 2002 and more victims came forward, it soon became clear that clergy abuse was, in fact, a systemic problem in the Boston Archdiocese, involving scores of priests and hundreds of victims across the metropolitan area.
A major criticism of Law is that he presided over a deliberate system of cover-up of sex abuse cases. Victims who came forward with abuse claims were ignored or paid off, while accused priests were quietly transferred from parish to parish or sent for brief periods of psychological counseling, then permitted to return to priestly duties, where they could begin to abuse again. Despite offences as serious as child rape, Police were never contacted, and new parishes were never warned of a priest's abusive history.
Cardinal Law certainly was not ignorant of abusive behavior. He and his senior officials kept detailed information on many of the archdiocese's most serious molesters. Yet it was not until decades of allegations had accumulated against them that many abusive clergymen were removed from parish ministry. Despite reports of child rape and other criminal behavior by clergymen, church leaders made no apparent effort to inform law enforcement authorities.
How did the Boston scandal affect other parts of the U.S and elsewhere?
By the end of 2002, some 1,200 priests had been accused of abuse nationwide, according to a study by The New York Times. Over the course of the year, five bishops or cardinals had resigned in connection with sex scandals, including Boston's Cardinal Law -- joining four others who had resigned in previous years. The crisis was also spreading around the globe, with accusations of abuse or the mishandling of scandals forcing the resignation of bishops in Argentina, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Switzerland, and Austria.
The power of the priest, is the power of the divine person; for the transubstantiation of the bread requires as much power as the creation of the world— St. Bernardine of Siena
Case Study 2: Alaska: Abuse in a remote Yupik (Inuit) Village
Between 1959 and 1986 in St Michael, and other remote native Alaskan (Yupik) villages, roughly 110 children were abused by Catholic priests from the Jesuit order and their assistants who were sent by the church to minister to the needs of these remote communities. In the case of St Michael, 80% of the boys of the village were abused by two men -a Catholic priest Fr George Endal, and his lay "assistant", Joseph Lundowski. The story is told in a PBS Frontline documentary - "The Silence".
The horrific abuse occurred in the schoolhouse and the chapel, and the children had no way of escaping it. It wasn't until 1975 that Lundowski was removed from the community (and then only after he was actually caught in the act by one of the community's adults), but Fr Endal remained above suspicion, and was left in the village until 1983, during which time he continued to molest boys and girls -threatening them with harm if they told anyone what was happening. The scars in this community are very evident in the documentary -many have succumbed to alcoholism, self harm, or domestic abuse and violence. Experts in Yupik culture say that the abuse occurred in a community already victimised over decades by colonisation, and waves of disease epidemics that killed off thousands in their communities. It was the pain and trauma of these events that caused many to turn to Catholicism (and away from their old gods) in the first place.
A class action was brought by victims of the scandal against the Fairbanks Catholic diocese in 2002.
When legal action started and victims were deposed, the Catholic Church initially denied any knowledge of Lundowski’s abuse or any responsibility for what he had done, because he wasn't an ordained priest. However internal church records gave the lie to that denial -they revealed that the church had known Lundowski was being posted to villages to assist Fr Endal, and that there were claims of abuse against him.
The case was settled in 2009, and as part of the settlement, the Bishop was required to meet with victims. There is a poignant scene in the documentary where the Bishop of the Diocese of Fairbanks (Alaska), Fr Donald Kettler, flies into the remote village near the arctic circle, and meets with local victims and community leaders to deliver a heartfelt apology on behalf of the Catholic church. He states in his on camera interview that meeting with victims brought home to him in a much more personal way the deep, enduring hurt that is caused by child sexual abuse.
This particular episode illustrates the vulnerability of small, geographically isolated communities, to being preyed on by paedophile priests, and the ease with which they can hide their abuse from authorities for long periods of time.
Cross-section of countries affected by Catholic clergy child abuse
St Michael's Catholic Boarding School
Fr Kit Cunningham
Various - hundreds of priests across the country since 2002
Dioceses of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Hasselt, Liege
Various priests and a cardinal
94 clerics across the country - e.g. Regensburg, Munich, Friesing, Berlin, Frieburg
Peter Hulleman, Peter K, Wolfgang S
Brighton, Plymouth, Cardiff, Birmingham, Middlesborough, Benedictine Order, Kittegan order, Shrewsbury
Fr Michael Hill, Fr John Lloyd, Fr Joseph Jordan, Fr John Kinsey, Fr Billy Adams
Archdioceses of: Cashel & Emly, Dublin, Tuam, Armagh
Fr Eugene Green, Mnsgr Michael Ledwith, Fr Paul McGennis, Oliver Grady, Anthony O'Connell
Archdioceses of: Milwaukee, Boston, New York, Louisville, Orange, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Denver
John Birmingham, John Geoghan, Paul Stanly and others
Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland (and in many childrens institutions)
Fr Albert Davis, Ross Murrin, Vincent Ryan, James Fletcher, John McAlinden, John Denham
BBC Ireland: The Shame of the Catholic Church
Case Study 3: Ireland: Heartland of Catholicism
At the beginning of the new millennium (2000 and onwards), Catholic child sex abuse cases in the United States were being widely investigated, and were reported in worldwide media and TV documentaries.
However the Irish Catholic church was also having its own abuse scandal and cover-up, which eventually led to a painful split between the Irish bishops of the Catholic church, and the Vatican Several events laid the groundwork for the scandal.
The Maynooth Seminary
St Patricks, Maynooth is one of the oldest and most important seminaries in Ireland for the training of priests. In 1984, a group of senior seminarians at Maynooth expressed their concerns to the senior dean regarding the inappropriate behaviour of Micheál Ledwith, then vice-president of the College, towards younger students. Ledwith was promoted to President of St Patrick's Seminary despite these allegations. However he subsequently resigned as President in 1994 when allegations of sexual abuse resurfaced.
These events led to an investigation of the seminary by commissioned by the bishops in 2002. The investigation found that the bishops had not responded adequately to complaints of sexual harassment of seminarians at Maynooth College in the early 1980s.
Father Brendan Smyth
Fr Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order, who was convicted in 1994 of dozens of counts of sexual abuse in the Raphoe Diocese (county Donegal), was without doubt the worst serial child sex abuser and predator Ireland has ever seen. His shocking reign of abuse affected 143 young boys that were identified (and possibly many more), was abuse of the worst and most serious kind, and went on for nearly 50 years, from the late 1940s, until he was convicted in 1994.
The fallout from Fr Smyth's abuse (and its alleged coverup by the Norbertine order and Ireland's most senior cleric - Cardinal Sean Brady), led to Cardinal Brady retiring on his 75th birthday -a very unusual step for a Cardinal to take. It also led to a fracture with the Vatican over whose responsibility it had been to expose and defrock abusing priests in Ireland.
A two-part dramatisation of the Smyth case, Brendan Smyth: Betrayal of Trust, was broadcast by the BBC on 13 March 2011.
Fr Smyth was born and raised in Belfast, and had his first parishes there, where he began to abuse young children (mostly boys, but also some girls). He then moved to County Cavan in the Northwest part of the Irish republic, where he continued his pattern of abuse in remote, rural, Gaelic speaking villages.
In an extraordinary letter sent to a television station in Ulster, the Norbertine abbot who had been Father Smyth's religious superior for 25 years acknowledged that he and others had known for decades that Father Smyth had a "problem" with children, and thought they could deal with it by having him reassigned every two or three years to prevent him from forming "attachments to families and children. Some of his moves were to the United States -where he abused a number of children in a parish in Rhode Island (detailed in a TV documentary here).
The Order's policy of moving Smyth around each time allegations of abuse came to light provides stark evidence of the utterly misguided nature of the Church's policy toward paedophile priests in the decades during which much of the worst abuse occurred (1950-1990). Sadly, this policy was not only commonplace -it was the norm, and there is strong evidence it was sanctioned by the Vatican as official policy at the time for dealing with such cases.
Role of Cardinal Brady
The role of Cardinal Brady in Fr Smyth's abuse is a controversial one, and still not entirely clear. Cardinal Sean (formerly John) Brady resigned in 2013 at the age of 75 (unusually young for a cardinal) amid scandal that he helped to cover up Smyth's horrific offending in Ireland, and in the USA. At the height of Smyth's offending, Brady was a young parish priest and teacher at St Patricks school in County Cavan, when in 1975, he was asked to be part of a three person internal church investigation into allegations against Smyth.
Brady alleges that he was only a "notary" during the investigation, not an actual investigator, but records suggest otherwise. During that investigation victims were required to sign an "oath of silence", and Smyth was not reported to Police. Nor were other victims of Smyth who were uncovered during the investigation spoken to, or their cases referred to Police. Smyth went on to offend for another 20 years.
There is always tension between the possibilities we aspire to and our wounded memories and past mistakes— Cardinal Sean Brady
How does child abuse affect victims?
One of the most trenchant criticisms of the Catholic church's handling of sex abuse cases has been its almost wilful lack of regard or concern for the pain and suffering of the victims of clergy abuse. Often bishops and other church leaders confronted with allegations of abuse have seemed more concerned about the abusing priest and his needs, than about his victims.
Some church leaders have, for example, either not believed the veracity of victims' claims and accounts of abuse, or have believed the account, but tried to minimise the impact or seriousness of the abuse (one man was told, for instance, that he would 'get over it'). It's often argued that church leaders seem to lack any kind of genuine understanding of the serious consequences of abuse for victims, in terms of long term emotional and psychological impact.
In response to this perceived inequity, and to address the very real needs of victims, several victims groups and networks have sprung up, both in the US and elsewhere. One of the most prominent of these is SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). SNAP’s mission is to protect those who are vulnerable to child sexual abuse, heal those who have been wounded, and to prevent future abuse. It exposes predators and those who shield them; helps members’ share stories so they are empowered and educates communities about the impact of abuse.
Some of the common (and tragic) long term consequences of child sex abuse are:
- Chronic anxiety and/or depression;
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Reckless or criminal behaviour
- Risky or destructive sexual behaviour, or sexual repression
- Inability to form healthy, meaningful relationships
- Low self esteem and shame
- Feelings of anger, betrayal and hopelessness, throughout adult life
- Greatly increased risk of suicide
Suicides of former abuse victims are one area where there are measurable statistics. Studies have shown that the risk of suicide in later life is related to the frequency of abuse during childhood and the identity of the abuser. This article highlights some tragic suicide statistics from various countries:
If you tell anyone this happened, they'll never believe you, 'cos I'm a priest— Many abusing priests
ABC Four Corners Documentary
Perhaps the biggest question in the public's mind (and certainly for victims of abuse), is simply "Why"? Not only "why me?" but "why do they do this"? How can supposedly good holy men of the cloth transform into evil, predatory abusers in such apparently huge numbers?
The overall percentage of abusers is relatively low (estimated at between 2-4% of all clergy), but in terms of numbers, that translates to thousands of Catholic priests around the world. Various theories have been put forward -some more compelling than others.
The most obvious reason child sex abuse is so prevalent in the Catholic church seems to be connected with the ability of clergy to abuse power with impunity, because of the level of esteem in which they are held by the faithful within their communities. Combine the idea that "the priest simply can do no wrong" (i.e. abuse is unbelievable/inconceivable), with the notion that the priest is the living incarnation of God or Jesus (he's the guy who gets to present the sacraments, and can turn bread into the body of Christ, and wine into His blood), and you have a perfect recipe for both enabling and shielding an abuser of children.
Abusing priests themselves have been able to play on the fact that they are put on a pedestal, and to use this to select and groom victims, and then to convince victims they'll never be believed if they reveal their abuse, or in some cases even that the abuse is somehow ordained by God, and is "holy".
Finally, it's this protected, hallowed position of priests that completes the cycle of abuse and cover-up, by allowing these men to be protected by their "brothers" within the priesthood, and in most cases by their own bishops. A celibate priesthood becomes like a family of its own, and families protect their own from criticism by "outsiders".
Sex and celibacy
Many (and even some from within the Church itself) have suggested that one of the key factors in high numbers of child abusers is the requirement for Catholic clergy to be, and remain, celibate. They argue that all people (and especially men) need a sexual outlet, and in the absence of a healthy one, such as marriage, they will choose an unhealthy one, such as child sexual abuse. There may be a grain of truth to this argument, but it ignores some inconvenient facts, such as that at any given time (studies have shown), only approximately half or 50% of ordained priests are actually adhering to their vows of celibacy. Yet the pedophilia continues in large numbers. Another fact is that pedophilia also occurs in other churches and organisations where celibacy is not a requirement -such as the Anglican/Episcopalian church, and the Boy Scout movement. The era of a celibate Catholic priesthood may well be drawing to a close, but if it does, I suspect it'll be because of falling clergy numbers, not because of the child sex abuse issue.
Another common reason cited is the seemingly large proportion of homosexual men in the Catholic priesthood (and by homosexual, evidently this means "identifying as having homosexual orientation", since the priesthood is celibate). It is said that the 'gay lobby' starts in seminaries when a priest is training, where he may be targeted by older gay men, and initiated into gay sex, or pedophilia. The link between homosexuality and pedophilia is made because of the relatively high numbers of boys (as opposed to girls) who are abused by priests. However again there are huge problems with this argument, namely:
* There is no proven link between homosexuality and pedophilia generally, either in studies or anecdotally (pedophilia in the general population is just as prevalent amongst heterosexuals);
* There is strong evidence that pedophilia is a unique sexual preference, separate from either homosexuality and heterosexuality;
* The high numbers of male victims of abusing priests can just as easily be explained by the fact that boys are more readily accessible to priests in their ministry than girls are (because they become altar servers and can be taken away on camps and outings without as much suspicion). The fact that many priests also abuse girls when given the opportunity tends to suggest that the choice of victim is opportunistic rather than related to sexual orientation.
* It's important in the context of this particular argument to look at age ranges for abused victims - priests with an adult homosexual preference tend to target post-pubescent (adolescent) or older boys, whereas a true 'pedophile' will target pre-pubescent boys and possibly girls as well.
Abusing priests are themselves victims of abuse
Another commonly cited factor is the link between priests who abuse children, and their own (often cited) abuse at the hands of adults when they were young, or in seminary. There does seem to be some substance in this argument, as it seems that the majority of abusing priests have had at least one or more instances of abuse themselves. They may come to view this kind of behaviour as 'normal', or to subconsciously seek to continue the pattern of abuse.
There is evidence that priests are often targeted by older men in seminary for sexual relationships, and are sometimes coerced into these, under threat of failing in their studies, or not being granted access to the priesthood. In my view, the training of priests needs to be carefully examined by the Church to ensure that high moral standards are being adhered to in all seminaries.
The liberal cultural climate of the '60s/'70s
A recent study commissioned by Catholic bishops in America concluded that the liberal moral environment of the 60s and 70s contributed in part to the epidemic of child sexual abuse in the Church, by suggesting that such behaviour was morally acceptable. This is perhaps the most absurd of all the possible reasons put forward for child sex abuse, since it completely ignores the fact that there has always been child sex abuse in the Catholic church (since its very earliest days in the 3rd century AD, when the first records of discussion of the issue exist). It may be true that more abuse came to light over the past 40 years or so, but that doesn't mean there has been an increase in the actual incidence of it!
My personal view on this is that in looking for reasons for clergy abuse, we risk losing sight of the more important question, which is "how can we stop abuse happening, and deal with it properly when it does?".
There is no evidence that the rate (or percentage) of abusing Catholic priests is any higher than the rate of pedophiles in the general population. It's simply that the public is more outraged when such offences are committed by a group of people who have taken vows of celibacy, and to observe the moral teachings of the Christian church. We're also more concerned when clergy become abusers, because they have a pastoral care role in the community -a role which brings them into frequent contact with children and families, in a role of trust and due care.
The Catholic church needs to continue to look inward, and examine every aspect of the way it trains and appoints priests, to ensure that the principles and process are robust and beyond reproach. It's critical that the process doesn't allow pedophiles who have no real interest in serving God, to 'slip through the net' and become priests.
And most of all, the Church needs to change its narrow historical focus on shielding its own clergy, bishops and institutions from scandal, to protecting and caring for the wounded victims of abuse -allowing them to heal in a way that leads to them eventually being able to continue a meaningful life, and to come to terms with their past.
Why? Because that's what Christ would have done.
Who to contact if you have suffered abuse by clergy
SNAP (Survivors Network of those abused by priests)
NAPAC (National Association for People abused in childhood)
Truth, Justice and Healing Council (run by Catholic church)