The Catholic Clerical Sexual Abuse Crisis

The following is an excerpt of the full overview essay linked below.

The clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has been covered by a large number of scholars from a very diverse array of backgrounds and methodologies. The history of the individuals accused of sexual abuse with a connection to Loyola University Chicago cannot be properly understood without the broader context that they acted in. This essay presents the broad outlines of this background, as well as an overview of a variety of analyses that have emerged from the research on the crisis. 

In the early 2000s the Catholic Church experienced an upset that shook its foundations. A court case in Boston against former priest John J. Geoghan and the related extensive reporting of the Boston Globe on this case revealed a pervasive pattern of child sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy that had taken place over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. The judge overseeing the case, Constance M. Sweeney, ordered thousands of documents unsealed. The Boston Globe’s editors then turned these documents into a detailed series of reports. This ground breaking investigation revealed the extent of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the U.S.[1] What emerged was a pattern of victims and survivors who when they revealed the crimes done to them to church superiors were frequently met with dismissal and denial and little if any action to curb the abuse by clergy members.

Church and order leaderships time after time chose to avoid scandal, to ignore the calls of the survivors of sexual abuse, and instead shielded the perpetrators, who in most cases were faced with very few—if any—consequences for their crimes. This behavior by Catholic leadership is one of the aggravating factors of the sexual abuse crisis that is plaguing the church and many of its related religious orders today still. Church and order superiors went to some considerable lengths in their efforts to insure that the institution avoided scandal. Archivist of the Boston diocese James O’Toole for example revealed that he found his own diocese kept a separate set of files for “problem priests” that were strictly separate from what even the official archivist was privy to.[1]

            In the twenty years since the child sexual abuse crisis broke, many survivors have spoken out against their assailants, revealing how ubiquitous sexual abuse and child sexual abuse was in the Catholic Church and in institutions adjacent to it. What also emerged was that, at least in the United States, the Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was aware of a wide-spread problem with priests abusing minors since at least the 1980s, when Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe was the first Catholic priest sued by his victims’ families. Journalist and writer Michael D’Antonio found that even before the Gauthe case broke, American Bishops had a vague awareness of the prevalence of child sexual abuse by clergy members, as they commissioned a study into priests’ psycho-sexual development in 1972. The church hierarchy had an awareness that it inadvertently offered shelter to men with psychological and sexual problems.[2] But, as the research into the crisis has revealed, the leadership of both parishes and dioceses, as well as the leadership of Catholic religious orders time and again refused to face the crisis in their midst. The 2001 Gaughan cases’ significance was that the judge refused to comply with the church’s request to seal the court documents, which up to that point had been common practice in clerical child sexual abuse cases brought before secular courts. Another common practice was that the church and religious orders rather paid large sums in settlements than going to trial, as legal scholar Jo Renee Formicola found. As early as the 1990s the church had paid millions in settlements, long before the Gaughan case went to trial.[3]

[1] James M. O’Toole, “What Did I Know, and When Did I Know It?,” American Catholic Studies 127, no. 2 (2016): 6.

[2] Michael D’Antonio, Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, 1st ed. (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, StMartin’s Press, 2013), 17.

[3] Jo Renee Formicola, Clerical Sexual Abuse: How the Crisis Changed US Catholic Church-State Relations, First edition., Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 53.

[1] “Boston Globe / Spotlight / Abuse in the Catholic Church / The Geoghan Case,” accessed January 17, 2022,