The Ongoing Saga of the Priest Sex Abuse Scandal

Deal W. Hudson
April 19, 2010

In October 2001, crisis Magazine published an article, titled “The High Price of Priestly Pederasty,” by Dan Michalski. Reporting on publicly known cases of sex abuse by priests, Michalski summarized his findings:

So far, more than 3,000 Catholic priests in America have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors, and nearly 2,000 insurance claims have been paid… [E]very one of the 188 dioceses in the American Catholic Church has faced or is facing claims… [T]he total payout has climbed past $1 billion, with another half-billion pending.

The crisis article was published three months before the first Boston Globe article on sex abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. The Globe‘s extensive coverage led to Bernard Cardinal Law’s resignation in December 2002 and their winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Meanwhile, the reaction to the crisis article on “priestly pederasty” was nearly complete silence. I did receive one e-mail from a bishop who was a friend of mine asking angrily, “Why did you publish an article about that scandal?”

“So it will stop,” I replied.

I had been talking with the crisis staff for more than a year about finding a writer who could summarize the dimensions of sexual abuse by priests. I was turned down by a number of Catholic journalists before finding Michalski. No one wanted to talk about it or acknowledge it, even after we published the hard evidence of its pervasive and persistent presence throughout the Church.

It took the constant hammering of the Boston Globe series, along with reports from other major newspapers, for Church leadership to admit they had a problem needing a solution other than sending priests for a “cure” that did not exist.

At their June 2002 meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the National Review Board for the purpose of collaborating “with the USCCB in preventing the sexual abuse of minors in the United States by persons in the service of the Church.” Under the leadership of former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, the NRB hired the John Jay School of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York to conduct a survey of all the dioceses in the United States. The John Jay report, covering a period from 1950 to 2002, was presented two years later.

The report indicated that dioceses found credible allegations against “4,392 priests in the USA, about 4 percent of all 109,694 priests who served during the time covered by the study.”

In a period of two years, the bishops, in a complete turnaround of institutional behavior, made transparent what had been shielded in secrecy for decades. They also implemented a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People intended to create uniform procedures for the handling of sex-abuse allegations.

With this decisive action by the bishops, the priest sex-abuse crisis in the United States slowly quieted down, although the debate over the role of active homosexuals in the priesthood continues to be debated to this day. (See my newsletter from the time, “Ten Myths About Priestly Pedophilia.”)

The issue of improper sexual behavior by Catholic priests was brought back into the headlines by the publication of official reports of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland, especially the Murphy Report, and now in Germany and Austria.

For Catholics in America, the intensity of the media coverage, particularly its personal attacks on Pope Benedict XVI, brings a reprise of the highly charged emotions of the 2002-2004 period when the bishops were finally facing the problem.

But these reports from abroad have opened old wounds and given Catholic-bashers new life, as seen in the efforts by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to have the Holy Father arrested when he arrives in the UK in September.

Eight years ago, when the U.S. bishops began their work with the National Review Board, no one anticipated that the same scenario was going to repeat itself in countries around the world.

If similar procedures had been mandated by the Vatican throughout the Church, then all the bad news would have largely been known by now. Instead, the stories of sexual abuse by priests will be forthcoming from different countries around the globe for years – perhaps decades – to come. The wound is going to be kept open for a long time if the Vatican does not act decisively, as the U.S. bishops did in 2002.

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