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The Report – A Reason to Hope

By Cecilia H. Martin


 The material in this article comes from The National Review Board’s Report on the Crisis In the Catholic Church.   Its main focus is on the role the bishops played in the crisis.  It is strongly suggested that all serious Catholics read the report, which may be found at .  Print copies may be ordered from the USCCB.



     In the early winter months of 2002, Boston, Massachusetts became the epicenter of a series of scandals that rocked the Roman Catholic Church to its roots.  Lurid but factual news accounts revealed that the Archdiocese of Boston had transferred a serial pedophile priest from parish to parish for decades even after complaints surfaced that he had molested young children. The tragic story of Father John Geoghan, now deceased, opened a floodgate of accusations against a number of priests who had similarly sexually abused youth.  Just as quickly, it became known that bishops, aware of the proclivities of and charges against their priests, failed in their duties to respond adequately to that abuse. 

       In June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, assembled in Dallas, Texas amidst a firestorm of nationwide media coverage. On the eve of the conference, the Dallas Morning News reported two-thirds of the 177 Latin rite dioceses (111), had harbored priests who had been accused or convicted of sexual crimes. All eight Cardinals along with numerous bishops were implicated; Church leaders did not dispute the findings. There was a scramble for causes and solutions.

       At the conclusion of the Dallas meeting, the bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (the “Charter”) that included a “zero tolerance” policy for priests who engage in sexual abuse. The Charter established a National Review Board composed of lay Catholics who would prepare a report evaluating the “causes and context” of the crisis.  After a bit of fine-tuning by Rome, the Charter was approved by the Vatican as policy for the Catholic Church in the United States. (The problem of clerical sexual abuse however, is not limited to the U.S.)

       On February 27, 2004, the Review Board presented its report to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB and to the public. The board was made up of thirteen lay Catholics selected by the bishops.  The Honorable Anne Burke served as Interim Chair and Robert S. Bennett, Esq., the Research Committee Chair. The Conference commissioned a research group at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York to conduct a survey of all U. S. dioceses and religious orders to determine the number of allegations of abuse, the nature of the abuse, and the response of the Church.   

       The Research Committee interviewed more than eighty-five individuals including twenty-four cardinals, archbishops and bishops, priests, former priests, seminarians, victims, psychiatrists, medical and civil personnel, lawyers and canon lawyers in addition to studying pertinent articles and materials. The Board reports a 97 percent rate cooperation rate from dioceses; the response rate for religious orders was much lower. (Approximately one-third of the estimated 45,000 priests serving today are religious order priests.)

       In general, the board received episcopal support and cooperation. However, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska through his vicar general, informed the board that he would not cooperate and “is prepared to take any appropriate and suitable measures necessary, including legal action, were that board, your institution, or the USCCB to attempt to coerce him by adverse publicity, the threat of such, or similar actions.”   


Two Questions 

     The study was predicated upon two fundamental questions: 

1. “Why did individuals with a disposition to prey sexually upon minors gain admission to the priesthood?”  

2.  “How did they manage to remain in the priesthood even after allegations and evidence of such abuse became known to their bishops and other Church leaders?"  

       The John Jay College states that from 1950 to 2002, Church records indicate that 4,392 priests, a representation of four percent of the 109,694 priests, were accused of engaging in the sexual abuse of a minor. There were approximately 10,667 reported minor victims of clergy sexual abuse. Eighty-one percent of the victims were male, 19 percent female.  The Report states, “…any evaluation of the causes and context of the current crisis must be cognizant of the fact that more than eighty percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature.” (emphasis ours) In the past two years, 700 priests have been removed from the ministry.

     Approximately seventy-eight percent of the victims were between the ages of eleven to seventeen when the abuse began. More than three-quarters of the victims were of an age wherein the conduct is not classified as pedophilia, however “there were substantial numbers of very young children who were victimized by priests during this period,” almost 2,000. Nevertheless, the media’s labeling of the crisis as one of “pedophile priests” was inaccurate. 

       In addition, the abuse occurred throughout the country. However, contrary to initial reports, there doesn’t appear to have been much transferring of predator priests to other dioceses. The prevalence of abuse was highest among diocesan priests, 4.3%. By contrast, 2.7% of religious order priests were abusers.  “Priests ordained in the early 1970’s were more likely to have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor than priests ordained in any other period.”

       The Report states that the bishop’s inadequate response to the crisis over the past twenty-five years is even more distressing than the facts of the abuse.  “Their responses were characterized by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy, and neglect.” Coupled with their failure, the amount of monies paid out to victims in counseling fees, settlements and attorney fees is very near the one-half-billion dollar mark.  The current total is $573 million not counting the $85 million Boston settlement. Fourteen percent of the dioceses and religious communities did not provide the board with financial data of pay-outs.    





Did the Bishops Know?

     The short answer is yes.  Since the scandals broke hundreds of priests have been removed from ministry.  Why did these priests remain active after their bishops knew of their activities?  Hindsight reveals a majority of bishops did not grasp the gravity of the problem nor did they appreciate the trauma and subsequent suffering endured by the victims.  In the 50’s and 60’s the nature of sexual abuse of the young was not well understood. Nevertheless, such conduct always constituted a criminal act.  Regardless, bishops very rarely reported the conduct of a miscreant priest to civil authorities. One priest stated he didn’t think it ever occurred to the bishops that people go to prison for this type of activity.

       An overarching reason for the failures of the bishops is the presence of clericalism, the concept that the clerical state is far above that of the laity and not subject to question or review. Regarding the failings of their brother priests, bishops and Church leaders consistently engaged in a massive denial of the facts.  In a shocking display of either naiveté or refutation, men who were ordained as an “alter Christi,” were thought not capable of engaging in such horrific acts as those claimed by the victims. 

       Church culture heavily favored the accused priest; belief in and protection of the priest took precedence over the accusations and suffering of the victims.  Often the cleric charged with interviewing an accused priest was his friend or a former classmate.  The priest investigator rarely heard directly from the victim and was quick to believe his brother priest’s protestations.   

       Clericalism played a part in the bishop’s determination that nothing untoward would happen on his watch. A cult of secrecy grew up which was maintained to such a degree that bishops did not even speak to other bishops regarding the escalating problem of predator priests. The report states, “Finally, the haughty attitude of some bishops, which has exacerbated the crisis, is a byproduct of clericalism. Just as priests are often placed on a pedestal far above the laity that they serve, certain bishops appear far removed from their priests.”  Sadly, the laity trusted the Church to take care of them.  When it did not anger, grief and a loss of faith followed.

       The watchword for the bishops was to avoid scandal at all costs.  Their first order of business was to protect the reputation of the Church and, in effect, themselves.  More than a few priests feel the bishops have “hung the priests out to dry.”  The board found four results of avoiding scandal particularly troubling:  1) criminal activity was not reported to the civil authorities, 2) victims were discouraged from reporting the abuse, 3) inadequate methods were used to track allegations and 4) bishops may not have punished priests because they themselves were compromised. This last reason is very distressing.

       In addition to what became known as an “institutional cover-up,” Church leaders relied heavily on attorneys who cautioned them, even in the face of an exploding crisis, to never meet with or apologize to the victims even when the allegations had been substantiated. Consequently, the bishops remained preoccupied with litigation and missed the massive amount of human suffering those individuals and families were enduring.  Some of the victims eventually committed suicide.      

       In addition to relying on lawyers, the bishops depended upon therapeutic modalities. Forty percent of the accused predator priests were sent to treatment facilities.  Almost all the centers were Church affiliated and had a vested interest in how many priests they could “cure” and return to active ministry in order to increase their referrals.  In addition, certain centers were run by men who themselves were at odds with the Church’s moral teaching. 

     Some bishops, particularly intent on obtaining the return of their aberrant priests, withheld information from the treatment centers and shopped around for second opinions and centers that would return a clean bill of health. Father Geoghan was returned to ministry after having been treated at several different facilities.   

        Psychiatrists told the board that since the late 80’s, it has been understood that men who sexually abuse minors can be treated but not cured.  They described such men as “manipulators” and “con artists” fully capable of deceiving even doctors, bishops and their victims. It is a recognized fact that the psychological test that can adequately predict future behavior does not exist.  


Did the Bishops Attempt to Correct the Situation?

     The Report states, “The lack of expressions of outrage by bishops- both at the time they first learned of the abhorrent acts of some priests and in dealing with the crisis publicly – is troubling.”  Some bishops, however, attempted to head off disaster. Bishop John D’Arcy (South Bend-Fr. Wayne, IN), when acting as auxiliary bishop in Boston, several times informed Cardinal Law regarding Fr. Geoghan’s activities, telling Law specifically, “Fr. Geoghan has a history of homosexual involvement with young boys.” Bishop D’Arcy was transferred to South Bend, IN.

       In addition, when some bishops requested a process to deal with priests who had sexually molested minors, the Vatican blocked their efforts, even in cases where guilt had been established and the priest had received full defense rights in litigation. Canon law has proven to be inadequate in dealing with these types of crimes.  Rome was reluctant to interfere with the bishops and would not pressure recalcitrant bishops, despite a plethora of calls from the laity.  (A number of Catholic Media Coalition members have spent years documenting the activities of bishops who fail in their duties to present the full truth of Catholic teaching and to correct dissent).  It wasn’t until the full weight of the scandals in the United States and the reports of similar activities in other countries descended upon Rome that the Church began to expedite its laicization policies. 



     The National Review Board Report has provided the people of God with a view of  the circumstances and the clerical environment that resulted in the deepest crisis ever to occur in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  The data collected on predator priests, the majority of whom are homosexually inclined, is instructive for the future.  This article dwells almost exclusively on the role of the bishops because we believe if fault lies anywhere, it lies with the fallibility of Church leadership.  It must be addressed in the public square. 

       The Report is not perfect, but we find it to be precise, balanced and fair.  Certain problems exist, not the least of which is the diocesan self-reporting.  The bishops, however, are to be commended for commissioning the report.  It is a sign of their desire to correct the wrongs and regain the trust of the people.

       Unfortunately, there isn’t another study of this nature on the problem of the sexual abuse of youths with which to compare data. As such, the Report is an important contribution to society at large, a society that is only now beginning to deal with an escalating dilemma.  It should be of great assistance to the universal Church that suffers from similar problems.

       Although commissioned by the bishops, the Report is a scathing indictment of their failure in their guardianship and teaching role.  The lack of accountability by the bishops is thoroughly exposed.  The Report states despite the fact that “Canon law 1389 provides for a penalty, including dismissal from office for a Church official who with culpable negligence fails to perform an act of ecclesiastical governance,” it has never been applied to Church officials in the United States. “Authority without accountability is tyranny.”

       There are fine men among the episcopacy whose reputations have been tainted by the actions of their brother bishops, just as loyal priests have been tainted by the crimes of fellow priests.  Conversely, predator priests are men characterized as afflicted with deep-seated problems of immaturity and emotional and psychological imbalance.  The Vatican states men of homosexual inclinations are not to be admitted to the priesthood.

       We, the laity cannot in any way escape culpability for the tragic situation that has befallen us as Catholics. All of us are called to be informed and to be active in serving the Church we love.  The most critical need however, is the need for holiness.  Whether priest, bishop or laity, the responsibility is ours.  The National Review Board’s Report has given us a starting point to correct the wrongs and to grow in grace.

The publication of the Report gives us a reason to hope.



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One of the co-founders of  of the Catholic Media Coalition, Cecilia H. Martin is the editor of The Catholic Advocate newsletter and the founder of the Missionaries Under the Sun web site,  Mission Sun based in St. Augustine, FL .  

Cecilia H. Martin is the author of Confusion In the Pews.

Editor's Note: Confusion in the Pews outlines how we can make our Church Catholic again, one parish at a time. Please see: Confusion In the Pews  This book is a handbook every Catholic must read and act on!