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The ecclesiastical response to Catholic sex abuse cases is a major aspect of the academic literature surrounding the pederastic priest scandal that first rose to U.S. national attention in 1985.

The Catholic Church's response to the scandal can be viewed on three levels: the diocesan level, the episcopal conference level and the Vatican. Responses to the scandal proceeded at all three levels in parallel with the higher levels becoming progressively more involved as the gravity of the problem became more apparent.

Diocesan responses to the problem

For the most part, responding to allegations of sexual abuse in a diocese was left to the jurisdiction of the bishop or archbishop. Many of the accused priests were forced to resign or were defrocked. In addition, several bishops who had participated in the cover-up were also forced to resign or retire.[1]

It was revealed that some bishops had facilitated compensation payments to alleged victims on condition that the allegations remained secret. In addition, rather than being dismissed, the accused were often instructed to undergo psychological counseling and, on completion of counseling, reassigned to other parishes where, in some cases, they continued to abuse minors.

The dioceses in which abuse was committed or in which abuse allegations were settled out of court found it necessary to make financial settlements with the victims totaling over $1.5 billion as of March 2006.[2] The number and size of these settlements made it necessary for the dioceses to reduce their ordinary operating expenses by closing churches and schools. In many instances, dioceses were forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of the settlements.

Response of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops

Before the Boston Globe coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, handling of sexual abuse allegations was largely left up to the discretion of individual bishops. After the number of allegations exploded following the Globe's series of articles, U.S. bishops felt compelled to formulate a coordinated response at the episcopal conference level.

As the breadth and depth of the scandals became apparent in dioceses across the United States, it became apparent to the American bishops that a joint response was warranted at the episcopal conference level. John F. Allen Jr. characterized the reaction of the USCCB as calling for “swift, sure and final punishment for priests who are guilty of this kind of misconduct.” In contrast to this, Allen characterized the Vatican's primary concern as wanting to make sure “that everyone’s rights are respected, including the rights of accused clergy" and wanting to affirm that it is not acceptable to "remedy the injustice of sexual abuse with the injustice of railroading priests who may or may not be guilty.”[3]

Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People

In June 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that pledged the Catholic Church in the U.S. to providing a "safe environment" for all children in Church-sponsored activities. To accomplish this, the U.S. bishops made a commitment to develop uniform procedures for handling sex-abuse allegations against lay teachers in Catholic schools, parish staff members, coaches and other people who represent the Church to young people.[4][5]

The thrust of the charter was the adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse.[6][7] The USCCB instituted reforms to prevent future abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees.[4] They now require dioceses faced with an allegation to alert the authorities, conduct an investigation and remove the accused from duty.[4][8]

The Charter also created a National Review Board, which was assigned responsibility to commission a descriptive study on the nature and scope of the abuse problem.

Essential Norms

At the June 2002 conference, to ensure that each diocese/eparchy in the United States had procedures in place to respond promptly to allegations of sexual abuse of minors, the Bishops also decreed Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priest or Deacons.

Prevention efforts

In 2002, the U.S. church claimed to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse.[9][10]

By 2008, the U.S. church had trained 5.8 million children to recognize and report abuse. It had run criminal checks on 1.53 million volunteers and employees, 162,700 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination. It had trained 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers in creating a safe environment for children.[11]

Response of the Vatican

Initial response

Although the Vatican did not respond immediately to the series of articles published by the Boston Globe in 2002, it has been reported that Vatican officials were, in fact, monitoring the situation in the U.S. closely.[3] Over time, it became more apparent that the problem warranted greater Vatican involvement.

On April 30, 2001, John Paul II, issued a letter stating that "a sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue by a cleric with a minor under 18 years of age is to be considered a grave sin, or 'delictum gravius.'"[12]

Crimen Sollicitationis controversy

In 2003 the existence of the "Crimen sollicitationis" secret document was revealed and some interpretations of the document concluded that it contains instructions to cover up abuse cases. [13]

2003 Vatican Conference on Sexual Abuse

In April 2003, the Pontifical Academy for Life organized a three-day conference, entitled "Abuse of Children and Young People by Catholic Priests and Religious", where eight non-Catholic psychiatric experts were invited to speak to near all Vatican dicasteries' representatives.

Papal apologies

In 2003, Pope John Paul II stated that "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young".[14]

In addition, Pope Benedict XVI has apologized for the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and pledged that pedophiles would not be allowed to become priests in the Catholic Church.[citation needed]

New rules regarding ordination

Because a significant majority of victims were teenage boys, the Vatican instituted reforms to prevent future United States abuse by requiring background checks for Church employees[4] and issued new rules disallowing ordination of men with "deep–seated homosexual tendencies".[15][16]

Criticism of bishops for parish transfers

Some bishops have been heavily criticized for moving offending priests from parish to parish, where they still had personal contact with children, rather than seeking to have them permanently removed from the priesthood by defrocking. The Church was widely criticized when it was discovered that some bishops knew about some of the alleged crimes committed, but reassigned the accused instead of seeking to have them permanently removed from the priesthood.[17][18]

Resignations, retirements and defrockings

Many of the accused priests were forced to resign or were defrocked. In addition, several bishops who had participated in the cover up were also forced to resign or retire.[1]

Bernard Francis Law, Cardinal and Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, United States resigned after Church documents were revealed which suggested he had covered up sexual abuse committed by priests in his archdiocese.[19] December 13, 2002 Pope John Paul II accepted Law's resignation as Archbishop and reassigned him to an administrative position in the Roman Curia naming him archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and he presided at one of the Pope's funeral masses. Law's successor, Bishop Séan P. O'Malley of Capuchin friar found it necessary to sell substantial real estate properties and close a number of churches in order to pay the $120 million in claims against the archdiocese.

Two bishops of Palm Beach, Florida, resigned due to child abuse allegations, resigned bishop Joseph Keith Symons was replaced by Anthony O'Connell, who later also resigned in 2002.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Newman, Andy (2006-08-31). "A Choice for New York Priests in Abuse Cases". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  2. Reese, Thomas J. (2004-03-22). "Facts, Myths and Questions". America. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "SCU Conference on the Crisis". Connections 4 number=4. December 2003.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2005). "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
  5. "Scandals in the church: The Bishops' Decisions; The Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People". The New York Times. 2002-06-15. Retrieved 2008-02-12.
  6. [1] retrieved February 14, 2009
  7. [2] retrieved February 14, 2009
  8. "Scandals in the church: The Bishops' Decisions; The Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People". The New York Times. 2002-06-15. Retrieved 2008-02-12.
  9. [3] retrieved February 14, 2009
  10. [4] retrieved February 14, 2009
  11. Catholic News Service (December 19, 2008-January 1, 2009). "We dare not become complacent on abuse, says U.S. bishops' new child protection head. Florida Catholic.
  12. Gallagher, Delia. "Vatican Study on Sex Abuse". Zenit.
  13. The Guardian
  14. Walsh, John Paul II: A Light for the World (2003), p. 62
  15. Filteau, Jerry (2004). "Report says clergy sexual abuse brought 'smoke of Satan' into church". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2008-03-10.
  16. Pope Benedict XVI (2005). "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders". Vatican. Retrieved 2008-03-09.
  17. Bruni, A Gospel of Shame (2002), p. 336
  18. Steinfels, A People Adrift (2003). pp. 40–6
  19. . /boston/news_features/top/features/documents/00882888.htm News/Features |
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