Institutional Abuse

The Catholic Church covers for priests and betrays its faithful.


"I always said going to church was setting the right example for my kids," Peggy Morales of East Harlem told The New York Times. "Now I am just so glad he wasn't an altar boy." And with that sentiment, the legitimacy of another hierarchical institution is called into question. Morales is probably also relieved that her daughters weren't interns at the Clinton White House and that none of her children were brilliant corporate financiers in Houston or the respectable accountants who provided them with cover.

The Roman Catholic Church's priest scandal is genuinely shocking, and not because it shows that more than a handful of priests would feel at home in the North American Man/Boy Love Association. (As parochial school veteran and Times metro columnist John Tierney notes, "revelations about sexually predatory clerics are not exactly a surprise.") What's shocking is the Church's official response to this known problem over many, many decades–a response that the public, parishioners and non-Catholics alike, are only getting to glimpse because fed-up victims have hired lawyers and sued church dioceses.

"The whole behavior of the church hierarchy really boils down to acting more like Ken Lay than apostles for Jesus Christ," says Michael Schwartz, a prominent Catholic layman who's been dogging the bishops on cases of sexual abuse since 1989. "They deal with this stuff precisely as corporate CEOs who are trying to protect themselves from liability and damages."

The scandal does need to be put in proportion. There are more than 40,000 Catholic priests in the United States, and the vast, vast majority stand accused of nothing except perhaps being a bit rotund. While the scope of the problem appears to be larger in the Catholic Church than in other faiths, even the alleged incidents are small compared to the more than 100,000 cases of confirmed child sexual abuse each year. Experts say that U.S. schools have 100 or so sexual abuse cases pending on any given day.

Yet it would be a mistake to regard the sexually wayward priest as an occasional or isolated case. Since the Gilbert Gauthe case came to light in Louisiana in 1985, when the charismatic priest admitted to molesting children and was sentenced to 20 years, allegations of past sexual abuse have arisen across the country. The crimes show some variation. Some priests, such as Boston's John Geoghan, are drawn to young children. Adolescent boys are more common objects of affection. The church's response, however, has been fairly consistent: Officials regard the predations as an internal matter, and cover up for the priests. As the rest of society grew ever harsher toward sexual offenders–making their names available in state-sponsored databases, for example–the church continued to look on its own pedophiles as sinners in need of redemption rather than criminals in need of punishment.

Since 1985, dioceses have settled as many as 1,000 civil cases involving priestly sexual misconduct. Like corporate litigants, they insist on sealed settlements, preventing the truth from ever seeing light–though sometimes the documents get leaked. That recently happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where current New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan fought a lawsuit from 1993 until he left for New York seven years later. Last Sunday, The Hartford Courant published extensive reports based on the sealed court case, settled for between $12 and $15 million last March. The revelations are instructive.

First, it shows the problem is a long-standing one, spanning the authority of numerous bishops. One priest, the Courant notes, was fond of having boys spend the weekend with him in the rectory, going so far as to sleep in his bed. When cases became unavoidable–as happened when Father Laurence Brett admitted to biting a teenager's penis in 1964–they preferred to send the priests to counseling en route to reassignment. They didn't, however, feel the need to inform the new parish of the reason for the move. Brett, whose alleged victims spanned an age gamut from 10-year-olds to university students, made use of the church's authority to conduct his business, telling at least one boy that performing fellatio was a way to take communion.

Bishops never reported the alleged crimes to civil authorities, even though Connecticut has required them to since 1971. (Roughly half the states include clergy among the officials required to report any signs of child abuse.) Egan, who inherited the mess, actually gave one priest the boot and instituted a sexual abuse policy. But at least two other offenders were only suspended, under threatened or actual civil litigation.

The days of sexual self-regulation are over for the Catholic Church in the United States: Officials are now turning over files of suspected priests to civil authorities, and state legislators will soon be passing laws to extend the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and to include religious officials in mandatory report laws. The real burden, however, is borne by American Catholics. Some are living with the pain of past abuse. Many more, like Morales, face the psychological pain of knowing that the church they look to for moral and spiritual guidance places its own institutional interests above theirs.