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Executive Summary

During the past 1700 years, the Roman Catholic Church, as graphically illustrated through its Canonical, Papal, and Councilor documents, has been acutely aware of child rape and sodomy by its Bishops, Priests, and Religious. Because of many factors including the failure to enforce celibacy, growing problems of solicitation in the confessional, the neglect of the canonical enforcement of gravely sinful acts by Clerics, and the abhorrence of any scandal, the Roman Catholic Church by omission has fostered a secret world of sexual laxity that allowed children and vulnerable adults to be objects of sexual gratification for its Bishops, Priests, Religious and lay employees. The crisis and the documents made available in this study affect every baptized Roman Catholic in the world. Thus, the lack of enforcement has put every Roman Catholic child and the faithful in peril.

The contemporary clergy sex abuse scandal is the most devastating and destructive “crisis” to afflict the Roman Catholic since the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. In truth the damage in the present age is far worse than that which prompted the Reformation and is more accurately compared to Spanish Inquisition. Tens of thousands of boys and girls, men and women have suffered incalculable emotional, physical and psychological damage at the hands of sexually abusive Clerics. Equally important and perhaps worse, they have suffered profound spiritual damage at the hands of the Church’s leadership to whom they appealed for solace, relief and justice. The obvious collateral damage is widespread mistrust of the Hierarchy, disillusionment, and anger by countless Catholics, lay and clergy alike.

“Crisis” is an inaccurate term to describe a phenomenon that cuts so deeply into the life of the world’s largest and oldest Christian denomination and consequently, into the life of secular society as well. The scandal of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is not momentary nor is it a problem isolated to this era. Although the contemporary wave of revelations started in the United States, the issue is not confined to this country, it exists on a global scale and indeed is dramatically coming to light in countries throughout the world. The crisis has pitted countless victims against the hierarchical and clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic church.

After the first exposures of sexually abusive Clerics by the secular news media in the mid eighties, victims came forward in a steady stream until they began to number in the thousands. Their natural tendency, based on their Catholic nurture and deep fidelity to their church, was to turn to their leaders, the Bishops, archbishops and Cardinals, for support and compassionate pastoral relief. Instead they were astounded to find themselves disbelieved, isolated, in many cases intimidated and threatened and basically re-victimized. Born out of sheer frustration with an ecclesiastical political and legal system that neglected them yet protected the offenders, victims began to approach the civil courts for relief.

The institutional church responded defensively, motivated only to protect its power and temporal interests. It countered the various allegations of the victims with a set of defenses that have become standardized:

  1. Clergy sexual abuse was a new phenomenon, unforeseen by the Bishops and largely unknown until the revelations of the mid 1980's. Consequently they had no prior notice or suspicion that any priest would sexually act out.

  2. The Bishops and other Church leaders did not understand the nature of the sexual disorders that compelled Clerics to act out in a sexually abusive manner nor did they realize the extent of the damage inflicted on victims. They relied on psychologists and other medical experts who led them to believe that pedophiles and ephebophiles could, in some cases, be cured and returned to active ministry.

  3. The Bishops had no structures or policies with which to deal effectively with accusations of sexual abuse and therefore resorted to ad hoc solutions with no support of guidance from the National Bishops Conference or each other.

  4. The “crisis” has been grossly exaggerated and blown out of proportion by the secular media and plaintiff attorneys.

Victims sought relief from civil courts. Their attorneys sought discovery of church records and closely studied church laws and policies. This process, involving aggrieved victims in each of the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States, revealed predictable patterns of behavior by church leadership. Although the church’s canon law contained specific procedures for investigating sex abuse charges, these procedures were universally ignored. Instead, Bishops, acting secretly with little or no collaboration from others, transferred abusive Priests from one locale to another and from one diocese to another with no warning to the receiving pastors or congregations.

The contention that the present crisis is isolated to this era is completely destroyed by the historical evidence of the Catholic Church’s own legal-canonical history. This history begins with the 4th century Council of Elvira in Spain which passed several laws dealing with clergy sexual abuse of various forms. From the 4th century through the Medieval, Renaissance and reformation periods to the present day, there is a consistent pattern of ecclesiastical legislation aimed at curbing clergy sexual abuse of minors and unwilling adults. Parallel to the disciplinary measures that were promulgated with predictable regularity, Church leadership in the person of the Popes and Bishops aggressively defended the ideal of mandatory celibacy as essential to the priesthood and eminently livable.

In certain periods of history the institutional church was much more open about clergy sexual abuse, publicizing its disciplinary regulations and collaborating with secular authorities in the enforcement of its laws. After the Reformation period, when the Catholic Church effectively lost its monopoly on Christianity, it became more defensive and secretive in order to preserve its power and status. At this time the overall policy towards clergy sexual abuse returned to the shadows of ecclesiastical clandestiny.

The Church’s disciplinary legislation has attempted to attack several forms of sexual abuse: sexual contact with minors, homosexual relations, clergy concubinage and solicitation of sex in the context of sacramental confession. Canonical texts from the Medieval through the Reformation periods reveal a presumption that a significant proportion of the clergy violated their celibacy obligations in a variety of ways. Post Reformation texts from the 17th century into the 20th century reveal that in spite of disciplinary canons, the Church was ineffectual in dealing with the clergy abusers and their victims.

Authentic Catholic sources list voluminous documentation pertaining to clergy sexual abuse and sexual activity in many forms. The following are perhaps the most important in demonstrating the attitude and policies of the hierarchical leadership when faced with the gravity of clergy sexual abuse:

  1. Council of Elvira, AD 309  For detailed information see Laeuchli, Samuel. Power and Sexuality: the
    Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. 1972.

  2. Book of Gomorrah, St. Peter Damian, 1051 For a translation and commentary, see Damien, St. Peter. The Book of Gomorrah: an Eleventh Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices. Translated with notes by Pierre Payer. Waterloo, Ont. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 1982.

  3. Horrendum, Papal Constitution by Pope Pius V, August 30, 1568 2007 publication of Canonical documents

  4. Sacramentum Poenitentiae, Instruction by Pope Benedict XIV, June 1, 1741 2007 publication of Canonical documents

  5. Instruction on the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation, Congregation of the Holy Office, March 16, 1962.

  6. Letter on More Grave Delicts Reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 18, 2001.  Also directly related to this letter is Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, Pope John Paul II, April 30, 2001  Review on

The contemporary awareness of the problem began in the spring of 1985 when the local secular media published reports of the cover-up and mishandling of several abuse cases in Lafayette, Louisiana. By 1986 cases were being reported from around the United States and an awareness of the problem began to dawn in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

In 1989 canonists met with representatives of the U.S. Bishops’ canonical affairs committee in an effort to present a proposal to the Vatican to streamline the laicization process which would make dismissing priest-perpetrators much easier. The Vatican refused to grant the proposal. In May 1993 when Pope John Paul II sent a letter about clergy abuse to the U.S. Bishops, Bishops created an Ad Hoc committee in 1993 and renewed it for 3 years in 1996. In spite of the committee, plaintiffs continued to approach civil courts in ever increasing numbers.  There were several peak moments between 1984 and 2002, yet nothing sparked the American hierarchy and the Vatican into action as did the Boston Globe expose of the cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston. The institutional church was finally moving, though very defensively and only because of immense pressure brought on by civil lawsuits and adverse publicity.

The deep secrecy that surrounded clergy sexual abuse in the 20th century is consistent with the overall ecclesiastical policy of secrecy that is characterized and manifested in several of its penal and procedural documents, especially the two most recent decrees from 1962 and 2001. The apparent conspiratorial policy of secrecy and cover-up is grounded in the self-concept of “Church” espoused by papal and episcopal leadership over the past centuries, namely that the Church, as a hierarchical-monarchical political structure has a God-given value that must be protected and sustained at all costs.

This document follows the history of clergy sexual abuse through the successive periods of Church history. The primary sources are all official Church documents and the secondary sources are scholarly studies and commentaries by respected Medieval and historical scholars. The backdrop for the legislative proof that sexually dysfunctional Clerics are an expected quantity in Church life is the adamant refusal of the Institutional Church to deal with victims in a pastoral manner and to admit that there is any problem with the concept of mandatory celibacy. The unfolding of Church legislation and the social impact of clergy sexual abuse unfolds gradually but surely, leading to a crescendo in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This was not the first time the problem was forced into the public forum. However, the similarity ends there. In every other epoch, the hierarchy controlled and defused the response to public eruptions of clergy abuse. This time the victims and the lay public have maintained control since the 1984 outbreak. The institutional Church has been ineffective in curbing, remembering and preventing the problem. The laity know this and, in a variety of ways are forcing the Roman Catholic Church to be accountable not only for the debacle of clergy sexual abuse but the even greater scandal of corrupt and self-serving leadership.

The scandal could have been possibly averted or at least mitigated had the Bishops of the United States and in other countries followed a three part course of action urged on them almost twenty years ago:


Get rid of the perpetrators


Take care of the victims


Be honest with the people

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