AuthorKing, Elizabeth B. Ludwin

    In 1998, John Geoghan, a Massachusetts priest, was defrocked--stripped of any rights to perform as an ordained priest--for molesting children. (1) Four years later, the Archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law, arguably one of the most influential people in the state, resigned from his position upon revelations that he knew of Geoghan's actions and yet chose to send him to other parishes where he would still be in an environment with minors. (2) In other parishes around and outside the United States, similar scenarios were, and had been, occurring for years: priests using their positions in order to engage in sexual acts with minors. (3) When survivors began to speak up, they and their families were often offered "hush money" in order to prevent a scandal. (4) Although the sexual abuse crisis came to the forefront in 2002 due to the investigative journalist team at the Boston Globe, reports of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy had been surfacing since the 1950s. (5) In the fifteen years since the story broke, the Catholic Church has pursued various avenues to address the legacy of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. (6) From transferring priests to other parishes, therapy, and out-of-court settlements with the families of victims, the Catholic Church's response has largely focused on the Church itself, while the victims are swept under the rug. (7)

    Although the legacy of the sexual abuse of minors was not confined to one country in particular and the perpetrators were not state actors, analyzing the Church's response through the lens of transitional justice, a field that examines States' responses to human rights abuses by a former regime, (8) highlights the gaps in accountability. Transitional justice is not, admittedly, a perfect lens through which to examine the Church's reaction to an epidemic of abuse, given that the Church is not a State (though it wields power worldwide). (9) Nevertheless, it can be helpful in highlighting accountability gaps in the Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis.

    Transitional justice came about largely in response to the human rights abuses carried out by authoritarian regimes in South America in the 1970s and 1980s. (10) Since then, transitional justice has come to include the myriad responses a government employs in its efforts to seek justice and peace for victims of a prior regime. (11) Yet, assessing the Church's reaction to the legacy of the sexual abuse of minors through the lens of transitional justice is not as revolutionary as it seems. As the Church tries to redefine itself as an institution that will not tolerate sexual abuse, it is finding itself in a moment of change. Thinking of the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church in terms of transitional justice can frame its response in a way that makes it easier to see the gaps in accountability and justice.

    This article argues that, for all its efforts at addressing the sexual assault of minors by priests, the Church has failed the survivors it created. By focusing so much on cleaning its own house, the Church has neglected to address the needs of the victims. (13) Efforts at accountability that are survivor-focused, such as truth commissions, can help establish a record and acknowledge survivors' suffering. (14) Unfortunately, an analysis of the Church's approach to the epidemic of the sexual abuse of minors by priests reveals that, while the Church has made many changes to address this issue internally, its handling of the survivors and their experience has fallen short. (15) Nearly all of its initiatives focus on the Church and its personnel, not on those who were on the receiving end of priestly abuse. (16) Although the Church has set up a commission and the pope has promoted the establishment of a tribunal to try bishops who covered up the abuse, (17) by and large survivors have been left out of the conversation.

    Part I of this article endeavors to relate the scope of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. (18) Understanding that many victims choose not to report their experience and that others may come forward years after the harm occurred, (19) it is, nonetheless, important to try to get a sense of who the survivors and perpetrators are and how the abuse went unnoticed for so long. Over 10,000 people reported being a victim of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, yet the official commissioned reports say very little about them. (20)

    Part II examines the Church's response to the revelations of sexual misconduct by priests perpetrated on minors. The efforts to prevent discovery of the epidemic of abuse and to hush survivors led to the reassignment of suspected priests to other dioceses. (21) Civil and informal monetary settlements likewise kept the misconduct out of the public eye by silencing survivors with money. (22) Yet, there were also efforts at real accountability, such as the defrocking of priests, widespread reform in the Church pertaining to the safety of minors, the creation of a commission to advise the pontiff on this issue, and a bishops' tribunal that has yet to be realized. (23)

    All of these mechanisms of accountability and efforts to shield perpetrators from facing justice, examined further in Part III, can be analyzed through the lens of transitional justice. How a State, or, in this case, an institution, does or does not address a legacy of human rights abuses can provide clues that shine light on the strength of that entity's commitment to justice. Using a transitional justice framework can also highlight the successful efforts to obtain justice for survivors, as well as areas that still need to be addressed. (24)

    Finally, this Article concludes with recommendations on how the Church can best move forward and address, in a comprehensive and survivor-centered way, the harrowing legacy of the sexual abuse of minors by Church clergy. Mechanisms through which the survivors can tell their stories, provide input on the rewriting of Church policies and procedures regarding the sexual abuse of minors, and just a general inclusion of the victims in the narrative can all go far toward acknowledging their experiences and strengthening the Church in the years to come.


    Although it was the Boston Globe investigative team in 2002 that broke story of the abuse and cover up by the Church, (25) "alarm bells had been sounding" for years. (26) As early as the 1950s, bishops began referring greater numbers of priests to treatment for the sexual abuse of minors. (27) Then, in 1967, the National Association for Pastoral Renewal held a conference at the University of Notre Dame on the problem of sexual abuse by clergy. (28) The seventies saw the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ("USCCB") (29) establish the first program designed to treat priests suffering from psychosexual disorders, including those involving the sexual abuse of minors. (30) On a global level, between 1983 and 1987, the Vatican Embassy reported more than 200 cases of abuse of minors by priests; (31) by 1992, the number was up to 400. (32)

    Three particular cases of sexual molestation are illustrative of the size and scale of the crisis. First, in 1992, sixty-eight survivors of sexual abuse lodged claims against Father James Porter of Fall River, Massachusetts, eventually settling with the Church. (33) The Porter case is particularly notable because it is estimated that he molested 100-200 minors. (34) In Massachusetts alone, there are known to have been more than fifty victims in seven years. (35) The Porter case received widespread media attention, and led to more revelations as survivors became emboldened and started to come forward. (36)

    Then, in the summer of 1983, allegations came to light that Father Gilbert Gauthe from Lafayette, Louisiana "had sexually abused dozens of children." (37) These were the first claims of clergy sexual misconduct to catch the eye of the country, in part because one of the plaintiffs refused the hush money offered by the Church and instead went to court, ultimately settling for one million dollars. (38) The accusations eventually got the bishops talking about how to address the problem of abuse by members of the clergy for the first time. (39)

    Finally, in 2002, the Boston Globe broke the case of Father John Geoghan. (40) All told, two hundred victims alleged sexual misconduct that occurred during a span of thirty-three years; (41) estimates of the total number of survivors are as high as eight hundred. (42) Not only was the number of potential survivors staggering, but the cover-up that prevented these claims from being made public was as well. The efforts to conceal the story involved six bishops and caused Cardinal Bernard Law, then the Archbishop of Boston, to resign from his post. (43) Moreover, Church documents showed that the Church knew about the abuse, but did not report it to the authorities. (44) On the contrary, the Church hierarchy transferred Geoghan to posts where he would still have contact with minors. (45) Geoghan was eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced to nine to ten years for molesting one child. (46) One Boston Globe article asks, "[w]hy did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of Geoghan's reach?" (47)

    This condensed history of the sexual assault of minors by members of the clergy confirms that what the Boston Globe team reported was news, only in the sense that the revelations and widespread nature of the problem were new while the actions were not. (48) Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find a country with a significant Catholic presence that has not experienced serious allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. (49) In order to gain as comprehensive a picture of this epidemic as possible, it is important to examine both its breadth and depth, especially in terms of survivors and perpetrators.

    Once the...

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