Child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church

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For the first time in this country, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, [we excavate] the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican today...I want to make it clear, as Taoiseach, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic. Not purely, or simply, or otherwise, because children have to be, and will be, put first.
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny[1]
When Jesus said, 'Suffer the little children, come unto me,' that's not what he was talking about!
George Carlin

Child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests appears to have a long history within Christianity,[2] and is especially associated with the Roman Catholic Church, due to a number of high profile scandals which have come to light in recent decades.

Many of these scandals relate to molestations committed decades ago, which were hushed up by the Church at the time. This hushing up included pressurising abuse victims into silence, a practice supported by Church decrees such as the Crimen sollicitationis. Priests can also threaten victims with eternal damnation if they speak up to secular authorities. This culture of secrecy and self-preservation is one of the factors which has allowed paedophiles to remain active within the clergy, together with the tradition of clerical celibacy which may attract those who cannot satisfy their sexual proclivities openly, and priests' frequent access to children in the pastoral duties.

21st century scandals[edit]

In the early 2000s, several priest molestation scandals broke that have rippled worldwide. Many cases were not prosecutable, as the evidence uncovered was from so long ago that the Statute of Limitations had expired. As a result of some of the cases, there was a push to alter these statutes so that adults who were molested as children would have a chance to testify and seek justice years after the event. In just one Australian state, Victoria, it is estimated between 600 and 10,000 children were abused since the 1930s.[3] In February 2017 the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released a report revealing 7% of Australian priests between 1950 and 2009 were accused of abusing children, with 4,444 sex abuse incidents recorded, and with some Catholic orders having up to 40.4% of their priests with allegations against them.[4][5][6] It is estimated that at least 4% of Roman Catholic priests serving in the United States during the first half of the 20th century have been accused of abusing minors.[7]

What gets me is it's the same story every time and every place. Bishops appoint priests that they know have abused children in the past to new parishes and new communities and more abuse happens.
— Colm O’Gorman, former abuse victim[8][9][10]

Colm O’Gorman directs an Irish charity assisting sex abuse victims.

A 2023 report by the attorney-general of Illinois revealed the problem was previously drastically under-reported; it found that, in the state of Illinois alone, between 1950 and 2019, almost 2,000 children were molested by 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers.[11][12][13] This was in reaction to findings by a 2018 grand jury from Pennsylvania that found over 300 Catholic priests molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s, which was covered up.[14][15] An inquiry concluded in 2021 that, in France alone, about 216,000 and perhaps as much as 330,000 children were molested by thousands of Catholic clerics since 1950. That inquiry stated that there were at least about 3,000 abusers out of some 115,000 clerics.[16]

Clerical celibacy[edit]

Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of New York, who was defrocked in 2019 for being a fucking pedo.

Some maintain that enforced celibacy leads to paedophilia:

(...) what is it about Catholicism that fosters child rape among its supposedly godly representatives? Maybe, just maybe, it's entirely unnatural to force a person to be "celibate?" Perhaps the priesthood attracts child molesters because of its unnatural structure that, by eliminating healthy sexuality, encourages perversion and also covers it up?
—"Does the Catholic Church foster pedophilia?" in Freethought Nation[17]

Andrew Brown maintains that celibacy encouraged men who were “confused or in denial about their own sexuality” to become priests. He claims that celibacy drives sexual energy to murky, awful forms of expression, and further argues that celibacy played a more important part in the cover-ups. Brown also believes a groupthink developed among the celibate brothers sharing the same temptations and frustrations. Friendship, affection and trust were diverted away from the enticements of non-celibate outsiders and drawn inward to the ‘safer’ celibate community. Loyalty to the brotherhood and protecting brothers became more important than protecting victims. The substitute family of fellow celibate priests became more important than the welfare of parishioners.[18]

Some priests have different moral standards from society as a whole. Prof Briggs, of the University of South Australia, has 50 years experience working in the field of child abuse and child protection. She said, "There has been an acceptance [among priests] over the years that having sex with a boy is not breaking celibacy. What priests told me was that the biggest crime was to have sex with a woman."[19]

Clerical homosexuality[edit]

Some Catholics have blamed the high number of homosexuals in the priesthood for priestly paedophillia.[20] However, since absolutely no scientific evidence has been presented of such a connection other than people's conjecture and opinions, rational thinkers ought to dismiss the charge as sheer bigotry against "abnormal" sexual choices. Of course, rational humans should remember that Occam's Razor applies: if the known consequences of granting human beings authority without corresponding accountability adequately explain the phenomenon, there's no reason to reach for deeper explanations. Unless, that is, you can't resist the urge to blame it on the gays.

Also, many of the reported victims of clergy sex abuse have been young girls as well,[21][22][23] which helps to further dispel the conflation between homosexuality and clergy sexual abuse. If homosexuality is somehow conflated with clergy sex abuse of young boys and vice versa, then clergy sexual abuse of young girls could also be conflated with heterosexuality, but Catholics who make this argument wouldn't take that as true, and most wouldn't. Simply put, arguments conflating homosexuality with clergy sexual abuse are simply trying to distract from the real problems of the Church, and redirect the rightful anger that one feels when informed of the disgusting nature of clergy sexual abuse and at the institution that allowed such invidious crimes, onto a community with little to no relation with the actual situation at hand (even Jesuit magazine America agrees on this).[24][25]

Papal hypocrisy[edit]

Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope Benedict, with fellow clergy in Germany, 1987.

There are even accusations that Pope Benedict XVI earlier in his career covered up for abusive priests in Munich and later as hypocritically named "morals enforcer" for The Vatican.[26] Priests who had abused children were simply moved on to other parishes where, all too frequently, they re-offended. Pope Benedict XVI personally issued a document telling bishops to hush up allegations of abuse and avoid reporting abuse to the authorities. The bishops were instructed to keep this sensitive document in a safe at all times. Perpetrators and victims of abuse were sometimes pressured into silence with the threat of excommunication to keep them in line.[27] Other victims were bribed into silence.[28]

Children are the greatest treasure and the future of every society: truly caring for them means recognising our responsibility to teach, defend and live by the moral virtues which are the key to human fulfilment.
—Pope Benedict in 2012[29]

Countless abuse victims have had their childhood, or their life, effectively ruined through the psychological trauma of abuse. Some victims were even driven to commit or attempt suicide.[30][31]

Abuse of trust[edit]

Roman Catholics are taught from early childhood to respect priests and to believe what priests tell them about God and religion. Paedophile priests can easily abuse this position. For example, Alexander Bede Walsh was convicted of serious sex assaults against boys.[32][33] One child abuse victim said Walsh gave him alcohol, telling him drinking it would get him to Heaven; another believed abuse was the hand of God touching him.[34] Another man, who was a teenager at the time, claims abuse by Walsh drove him to attempt suicide.[35] Walsh, who was convicted in 2004 over computer indecency,[36] was allowed to work at Roman Catholic premises within yards of a playgroup. This is far less serious than the abuse allegations above, but it happened in 2009 and 2010, despite promises from the church that they would mend their ways.[37][38][39] Walsh has been sentenced to 22 years in prison.[40][41][42] Walsh and others took advantage of orphans, and nuns carried out abuse as well as priests. One man wants compensation.[43][44]

Concealment from police[edit]

An Australian priest named John Denham (now defrocked) is alleged to have assaulted two boys in the late 1970s, who complained to the school principal, Father Brennan. Instead of contacting police, Brennan allegedly caned the boys to make sure they wouldn't complain again. In 2012 Brennan was charged with failing to report these serious crimes against the boys,[45] but died before court proceedings could begin, having been suffering from terminal cancer.[46]

Bishop Finn of Kansas City was convicted in 2012 of concealing child pornography from the police. The Reverend Shawn Ratigan, who worked under Finn, had indecent images on his computer. According to the prosecution, Finn knew about the offenses during 2010 to 2011, but failed to report the evidence to legal authorities.[47][48][49] Finn remained in office for 3 years despite this conviction and resigned belatedly in 2015.[50]

There have been cases where other similarly accused bishops reached agreements with the local authority and avoided prosecution.[51]

Collusion with local government[edit]

According to a grand jury report released on March 1, 2016, large-scale sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Blair and Cambria counties in Pennsylvania was routinely ignored and covered up by law-enforcement and government officials for decades. This was possible largely because the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was able to control who became the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief and other positions of government authority.[52][53] What was effectively an unconstitutional local elimination of the separation of church and state directly caused grievous harm to the members of the same church that ended that separation.[52]

Liability in UK law[edit]

In a case relating to abuse committed by a Catholic priest (since deceased) in the 1970s, a High Court in the UK ruled in 2011 that the local diocese was "vicariously liable" for the abuse, as any other employer would be.[54] The Church launched an appeal against this decision, arguing that the relationship between bishop and priest is "different" from that of employer and employee. The victim claimed sex abuse and rape at a children's home during the 1970s. Her lawyer commented that "this challenge to the High Court ruling is likely to be deeply offensive to victims of clerical abuse".[55]

Liability in US law[edit]

Adults in New York must start civil action before their 23rd birthday, which traumatized victims may find hard. Other states have differing statutes of limitations, running from as little as two years, with some states in the United States having statutes of limitations as much as twenty years.[56] The American Roman Catholic Church has lobbied vigorously and paid expensive lobbying firms large sums of money to prevent this deadline being extended.[57] In Guam, which is a United States overseas territory, the statute of limitations for pedophiles is just two years. Serial child molester Rev. Louis Brouillard has escaped legal consequences for his actions through this.[58]

Blaming the disease[edit]

Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa describes paedophilia as "illness, not a criminal condition" and claims abusers should be treated rather than punished. The cardinal says doctors should examine child abusers.[59] Treatment as well as punishment is common in liberal countries for illnesses that lead to crime. To give an example few countries would give an alcoholic a free pass if he kills someone in a drunk driving accident, even if one could claim his alcoholism played a role in his DUI.

B. Dorries from Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and herself a victim of priestly abuse when she was a child told the BBC:

If it is a disease that's fine, but it's also a crime[note 1] and crimes are punished, criminals are held accountable for what they did and what they do. (…) The bishops and the cardinals have gone to great lengths to cover these crimes to enable the predators to move on, to not be arrested, to keep the secrets within the church.[60][61]

Napier later apologized unreservedly for his comments.[62]

Leaked 1997 letter[edit]

In January 2010 an anonymous Irish bishop leaked a letter that undermined the Vatican's claim that the Irish sex abuse scandals were an issue of local mismanagement. The letter was written by the then Vatican ambassador to Ireland, Luciano Storero, and sent in response to a 1996 agreement reached by Irish bishops to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected abusers to the authorities - kind of like what one would expect in any organisation that doesn't consider itself to be above the law. Storero's letter reinforces the need to stick with canonical law, and highlighted the possible embarrassment of subsequently seeing their decisions over-ridden by the Holy See. The full text of the letter is hosted by The New York Times here. The letter is being claimed by many, including abuse victims, as being a "smoking gun" that establishes complicity in Rome.[63]

The church responds[edit]

The Catholic Church, given the chance to concede to reality and admit that the protection of child rapists is a serious problem, opted instead to spin. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, claimed that the letter had been misunderstood. He argued that the letter was not intended to instruct bishops to disregard civil reporting of suspected abusers, and that it was merely reinforcing the need to adhere to church law meticulously.[64]

Lombardi's response needs to be evaluated in light of the following excerpt taken from the 1997 letter:

In particular, the situation of "mandatory reporting" gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.

Even when giving the benefit of the doubt, this letter appears to have caused the Irish bishops to continue their habit of shielding suspected abusers from the civil authorities, yet if that was not the intention the Vatican was reticent in sending a corrective letter. If such a letter was sent then it's unlikely it'll be seen unless leaked. Documents originating from WikiLeaks allege that the Vatican used their statehood to hinder requests for assistance in the Murphy Commission investigation in to sex abuse in the Dublin diocese.[65]

Action to defrock or remove predatory priests was typically slow while action to transfer funds and make it hard for plaintiffs to get at money when lawsuits threatened was fast.[66]

Other Catholic responses[edit]

A screen capture of the Catholic League's news releases for January. Can you see their response to the letter?

The Catholic League managed to fit in a mention of the letter, but of course had many more important things to be angry about. Namely a blasphemous video at the Smithsonian and Muslims saying bad things about the Pope.[67]

Donohue's response begins by referring to a Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer representing the Vatican, echoing Storero's claim that the letter did not instruct Irish bishops to disregard civil law, but instead cautioned them against doing anything that could hinder internal church disciplinary proceedings. This is rendered nonsensical when a moment is taken to wonder what would be done if any other organisation, such as a fast-food chain, decided to perform internal investigations prior to informing the authorities of allegations that their employees had been raping the children of customers?

Donohue goes on to complain that The New York Times failed to report on a rabbinical court in Brooklyn that ordered its 10,000 members not to report crimes to the police. How this is relevant to the letter is anyone's guess, but it certainly helps Donohue build on his persecution complex, and perhaps imply that those pesky Jews are at the helm of the newspaper.

The letter finishes with the complaint that liberal media and activist groups have actually fought against mandatory reporting, when in fact Catholic bishops want it. Even if true, the letter from the Vatican appears to be out of step with the wishes of these bishops. Some counseling groups have indeed campaigned against a requirement that they report rape, although their circumstances are slightly different to those of the church. These groups aren't normally in the position of having to protect their own employees from rape allegations, and even accepting their opposition, the Church has not exactly been loud in fighting for such legislation. Indeed Connecticut's bishops mounted a vigorous campaign to prevent the statue of limitations on civil abuse suits, because they quite correctly note that cases become increasingly difficult to defend against as time passes, but also because of the financial liability it could create for them.[68]

Business as usual[edit]

Despite Pope Francis' promise to eradicate the "evil of abuse" from the Catholic Church, the Church is first and foremost a theocracy — it is strictly hierarchical and cliques within the Church protect their own. Two high-profile investigations of sexual abuse were essentially scuttled, one of alleged sexual abuse of an adult woman by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, and one of the alleged long-term sexual abuse of young boys by Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo of East Timor. In the case of Ouellet, he was investigated by his crony, leading to the dismissal of the case. In the case of Belo, he was allowed to "retire" to the position of assistant parish priest in Mozambique, where he teaches children and leads youth retreats.[69]

See also[edit]

  • Magdalene laundry—The Roman Catholic Church has a pattern of victimising those who are very vulnerable.

External links[edit]


  1. Technically pedophilia, the attraction to young children, is not a crime. Acting on that attraction by having sex with, or otherwise abusing, a young child definitely is though!


  1. Bam
  3. Australian Roman Catholic Church admits child sex abuse
  4. "Worst Catholic groups for child sex abuse claims in Australia revealed" (in en-AU). ABC News. 2017-02-06. 
  5. CNN, James Griffiths. "Australia: 7% of Catholic priests abused children, commission finds". 
  6. Corporation), ABC News (Australian Broadcasting. "Proportion of priests and non-ordained religious subject to a claim..." (in en). 
  9. This site claims the devil is behind sexual corruption in the RC Church but the quote is accurate.
  11. Brad Edwards and Megan Hickey (May 23, 2023). "Illinois clergy sex abuse investigation uncovers hundreds more cases in Catholic church". CBS Chicago.
  12. Robert Herguth (May 23, 2023). "Catholic church in Illinois vastly underreported clergy sex abuse, Kwame Raoul finds". Chicago Sun-Times.
  13. Kathleen Foody and Michael Tarm (May 23, 2023). "Catholic clergy sexually abused Illinois kids far more often than church acknowledged, state finds". The Associated Press.
  14. Nikki Battiste (August 15, 2018). "Catholic Church's 'secret archives' detail playbook for concealing abuse". CBS News.
  15. Mark Scolford and Marc Levy (August 14, 2018). "Report: Pennsylvania priests molested over 1,000 children". The Associated Press.
  16. (October 5, 2021). "French Church abuse: 216,000 children were victims of clergy - inquiry". BBC News.
  17. Does the Catholic Church foster pedophilia?
  18. Celibacy and child abuse
  19. Expert: 'Priests believe child abuse forgivable'
  30. New York Times - "Pervasive Abuse Found in Belgian Church" (2010)
  31. Howard Friedman. "Estate of Suicide Victim Sues Catholic Diocese For Negligence", Religion Clause, 2010 August 1.
  34. Abuse priest Alexander Bede Walsh jailed for 22 years
  40. Abuse priest Alexander Bede Walsh jailed for 22 years
  41. Abuse priest Alexander Bede Walsh jailed for 22 years
  42. Paedophile Priest Jailed For Abuse Of Boys
  43. Sex abuse victim set to sue Catholic Church after ex priest Alexander Bede Walsh is jailed
  44. Sex abuse victim set to sue Catholic Church after ex priest Alexander Bede Walsh is jailed
  45. Priest charged with hiding sex crimes
  46. Priest Tom Brennan dies after long cancer battle before sex abuse case could be heard in court
  50. Catholic bishop of Kansas City convicted of failure to report child abuse resigns
  52. 52.0 52.1 Innocence Abused: How A Reckless Combination Of Church And State Harmed Pennsylvania's Children by Simon Brown (May 2016) Church & State.
  53. Grand jury: Altoona diocese concealed sex abuse of hundreds of children by priests By Peter Smith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  54. "High Court rules Catholic Church liable over priests", BBC, 8 November 2011.
  55. "Catholic Church challenges priest child rape liability ruling", BBC, 16 May 2012.
  56. RET. September 13, 2018 14:41 CST
  57. The Catholic Church in New York State Paid Lobbyists a Fortune To Quash Anti-Child-Sex Bill
  58. A Catholic Priest Who Molested 20 Boys Was Told to Say “Hail Mary” Prayers As Punishment
  60. "'Paedophilia not criminal condition' says Durban cardinal" - BBC
  61. "Paedophilia 'not a criminal condition', says leading Catholic" - The Independent
  62. "South African cardinal apologizes for saying paedophilia not a crime" - News Daily
  63. New York Times: Vatican Letter Warned Bishops on Abuse Policy
  64. The Guardian: Vatican says Irish abuse letter has been 'misunderstood' with quite justifiable scare quotes.
  65. RTE News: WikiLeaks disclosures 'serious', says Vatican
  66. An arc of understanding
  67. Catholic League press releases for January
  68. Catholic News Service: Bishops decry bill to lift statute of limitations on civil abuse suits
  69. Vatican's mishandling of high-profile abuse cases extends its foremost crisis by Chico Harlan & Amanda Coletta (October 17, 2022) The Washington Post.