Catholic clergy sexual abuse meets the civil law.

Author:Doyle, Thomas P.
 
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  1. OVERVIEW OF THE PROBLEM

    In 1984, the Roman Catholic Church began to experience the complex and highly embarrassing problem of clergy sexual misconduct in the United States. Within months of the first public case emerging in Lafayette, Louisiana, it was clear that this problem was not geographically isolated, nor a minuscule exception. (1) Instances of clergy sexual misconduct surfaced with increasing notoriety. Bishops, the leaders of the United States Catholic dioceses, were caught off guard. They were unsure of how to deal with specific cases, and appeared defensive when trying to control an expanding and uncontrollable problem. The secular press and electronic media exposed the Lafayette case, and within a year the priest-perpetrator, Gilbert Gauthe, pled guilty to thirty-nine counts of sexual battery, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. (2) In addition, the bishop and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction that had enabled Gauthe's predatory behavior were subsequently subjected to a civil suit for monetary damages. (3)

    The sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic clerics has served as a catalyst for intensive inquiry into two basic aspects of church life: the sexual abuse of persons by members of a clergy obliged to celibacy, and the response by the authority structure of the Catholic Church. The scrutiny by the secular media has been relentless, and continues to increase in its fearlessness and intensity. (4) This public exposure has strengthened the resolve of vast numbers of victims to disclose their abuse. After first approaching Church authorities for assistance and redress, most victims have found the Church's internal system unwilling or unable to provide the relief sought. Further, in many cases, the official Church reaction amounted to a re-victimization, whereby the victims were treated as an enemy force. (5) This has resulted in the second, but equally vital area of scrutiny--the use of the American civil court system as a means by which victims of clergy sexual abuse seek redress.

    Although there are isolated instances of criminal and civil court actions prior to 1984, the Lafayette case appears to have opened a wide gate. (6) Since that time there have been several hundred criminal prosecutions of Catholic clerics throughout the United States. (7) Charges have varied from child endangerment to alienation of affection and aggravated rape. (8) Sentences have varied from probation, to multiple life terms. (9) It is estimated that perhaps 250-300 Catholic clerics have received sentences through the criminal justice system. (10)

    Since 1984, there have been about 3000 civil cases related to clergy sex abuse throughout the United States. (11) The vast majority of these cases have ended in settlement. There have been about twelve trials, all of which were high profile. (12) The twists and turns of the civil discovery process have been the most important factors in exposing the extent and nature of clergy sexual abuse. This has also been the most damaging force for the image of Church leadership, because it opened up the Church to public scrutiny on a new and invasive level.

    The problem of clergy sexual abuse has been most visible in the United States, but it is by no means confined to this country. Exposure of widespread sexual abuse and consequent hierarchical mishandling has occurred in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Austria, Germany, France, Argentina, and Hong Kong. (13) The denunciation of clerical abusers, their notoriety, and subsequent legal actions against them depends on several factors: the willingness of victims to go public, the cooperation of the secular media in exposing the problem, and the prosecution of suits by the civil legal system. Beneath these factors is an over-arching dimension that is perhaps the single most important issue: the place of the Catholic Church in the civic culture.

    Countries with a cultural and legal tradition of strict separation of Church and State have been in the forefront in exposing the problems and pursuing justice through the civil court system. Ireland, however, long considered to be one of the most "Catholic" countries in the world, has also shown remarkable aggression in calling church leadership to account for its handling of the many abuse cases among the Irish clergy. (14)

    The patterns of clergy sexual abuse have not been uniform. The problem has been inaccurately identified primarily one of "pedophilia," yet actual pedophile cases account for about ten to twenty percent of known cases. (15) Most cases have involved adolescent boys, with a small minority involving adolescent girls. (16) Clinically this type of inappropriate sexual attraction is known as "ephebophilia." (17) Most of the focus has been on male victims, which is in line with data showing that most cases in the United States have involved clergy sexual contact with young adolescent boys. (18) In the past year, victims and their supporters have also launched an aggressive campaign to highlight the high incidence of sexual abuse of adult women by Catholic clergy. (19) The majority of abuse cases in the United States have involved parish-based clerics and victims from among their congregants. (20) In a minority of cases, the abuse occurred in Catholic school settings. (21) There have also been instances of sexual abuse of seminarians (priesthood students) by clergy-faculty members. (22) There has also been high profile exposure of patterns of sexual and physical abuse in Church run orphanages and industrial schools, especially in Canada, Ireland, and Australia. (23) Although most accused perpetrators have been male clerics or religious men, (24) there have been isolated cases of abuse by Catholic religious women as well, usually in orphanage settings. (25)

    The term clergy includes priests, deacons, and bishops. Priests are the most numerous group of clergy members, and constitute the largest group of alleged abusers subject to civil sanction. (26) Sex abuse charges, however, have been made against bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, yet none have faced civil trial. (27)

    The Gauthe case is not the first instance of sexual malfeasance by a Catholic cleric, nor was it the first time such behavior had entered into the realm of public knowledge. It was, however, the first case to reach such notoriety in modern times. Cases involving clergy sexual abuse came to the forefront of public knowledge staring in 1984, when a large handful of cases in several United States dioceses rapidly developed into an uncontrollable social phenomenon that has profoundly impacted the Catholic Church throughout the world. Sociologists, political scientists, theologians, religious scholars, and lawyers have studied it. It has resulted in a painful scrutiny of aspects of the Catholic Church's clerical structure that had heretofore remained enshrouded in mystery, protected by a high wall of secrecy.

    There is little doubt that the publicity surrounding the Lafayette case was a major catalyst for the legal and cultural explosions that have rocked the Catholic Church. This, however, was not the beginning of the problem. Sexual misconduct by clerics extends back to the earliest years of the Church. (28) In the modern era the controversy has centered on the manner Church authorities have handled their responses to reports of clergy sex abuse and how they have shielded this phenomena from the public eye. Prior to 1984, the general public and lay Catholic populations were almost universally unaware of clergy sexual abuse. While there were rumors and vague stories, actual media exposure of individual cases was rare. Most instances of abuse were never brought to the attention of Church authorities. When abuse was reported, victims and their families were generally constrained to remain silent, and to trust the Church leadership to resolve the issue. Such resolution usually amounted to an admonition to the perpetrator, and a swift transfer to another parish, or in extreme cases, another diocese. (29) Accused clerics were rarely sent for clinical assessment or treatment until the 1970s and 1980S, (30) and even then, this occurred in only a minority of cases.

    Criminal prosecution was rare, because law enforcement and judicial authorities generally deferred to Church authorities to take care of matters, presumably so as not to embarrass the institutional Church. Civil cases against bishops or dioceses for monetary damages were non-existent until 1984. (31) Today, this protective, deferential attitude of civil officials towards the institutional Church has all but vanished in the United States.

    In the past, victims thought Church officials believed them when they reported sexual misconduct. They placed complete faith in the assurances given that the abuse of clerics would be dealt with properly. The post-1984 generation of victims, however, asserts that Church leadership generally disbelieves, or minimizes their claims. (32) Empty assurances that perpetrators would be properly dealt with, have left this generation of victims with little faith in the Church's leadership. This leadership and the Catholic Church's internal legal system, Canon Law, has proven to be consistently ineffective in satisfying aggrieved victims. This has led to widespread referrals to the civil courts for relief.

    1. The Church's Legal System

      The Catholic Church has its own legal system, commonly known as Canon Law. The Code of Canon Law, (33) a collection of church legislation, is the basic text. (34) The Code contains sections on procedural law, governmental structure, rights and duties of office holders, and penal law. (35) The various canons provide the clergy with a fundamental standard of care to be followed in their dealings with members of the church.

      The Code contains legislation that deals directly with sexual abuse, and procedures for dealing with accusations of such...

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