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The parish transfers of abusive priests were a pastoral practice that greatly contributed to the aggravation of Catholic sex abuse cases.

Bishops who knew about the problem

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.[1][2]

John Geoghan affair

For example, John Geoghan was shifted from one parish to another although Cardinal Bernard Law had been informed of his sexual misconduct on a number of occasions such as in December 1984 when auxiliary Bishop John M. D’Arcy wrote to Cardinal Law complaining about Geoghan's reassignment to another Boston-area parish because of his “history of homosexual involvement with young boys."[3]

Case of Joseph Birmingham

Another example was the case of Joseph Birmingham who was assigned to a number of parishes over a period of 23 years during which he molested a number of children. In response to a 1987 letter from the mother of an altar boy inquiring as to whether Birmingham had a history of molesting children, Cardinal Law replied, reassuring her that there was "no factual basis" for her concern.[4]

Similar practices among public school administrators

In defense of this practice, some have pointed out that public school administrators engaged in a similar manner when dealing with accused teachers,[5] as did the Boy Scouts of America.[6]

No reporting of incidents to police

Instead of reporting the incidents to police, many dioceses directed the offending priests to seek psychological treatment and assessment. According to the John Jay report, nearly 40 percent of priests alleged to have committed sexual abuse participated in treatment programs. The more allegations a priest had, the more likely he was to participate in treatment.[7] From a legal perspective, the most serious criticism aside from the incidents of child sexual abuse themselves was by the bishops, who failed to report accusations to the police.

2002 Massachusetts law

In response to the failure of many organisations to report abuse to the police, lawmakers have changed the law to make reporting of abuse to police compulsory. In 2002, Massachusetts passed a law requiring religious officials to report the abuse of children.[8]

In response to these allegations, both ecclesiastical and civil authorities have implemented procedures to prevent sexual abuse of minors by clergy and to report and punish it if and when it occurs.

Best medical advice available at the time

Defenders of the Church's actions have suggested that in re-assigning priests after treatment, bishops were acting on the best medical advice then available, a policy also followed by the US public school system when dealing with accused teachers. Some bishops and psychiatrists have asserted that the prevailing psychology of the times suggested that people could be cured of such behavior through counseling.[2][9] Many of the abusive priests had received counseling before being reassigned.[10][11] Critics have questioned whether bishops are necessarily able to form accurate judgments on a priest's recovery.[citation needed] The priests were allowed to resume their previous duties with children only when the bishop was advised by the treating psychologists or psychiatrists that it was safe for them to resume their duties.[citation needed]

Responses to criticism

In response to criticism that the Catholic hierarchy should have acted more quickly and decisively to remove priests accused of sexual misconduct, contemporary bishops have responded that the hierarchy was unaware until recent years of the danger in shuffling priests from one parish to another and in concealing the priests' problems from those they served. For example, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said: "We have said repeatedly that ... our understanding of this problem and the way it's dealt with today evolved, and that in those years ago, decades ago, people didn't realize how serious this was, and so, rather than pulling people out of ministry directly and fully, they were moved."[12]

3 % rate of conviction

According to the John Jay study, 3 percent of all priests against whom allegations were made were convicted and about 2 percent received prison sentences."[13]


  1. Bruni, A Gospel of Shame (2002), p. 336
  2. 2.0 2.1 Steinfels, A People Adrift (2003). pp. 40–6
  3. America's Worst Bishops
  4. Hand of God -
  5. Irvine, Martha; Tanner, Robert (21 October 2007). "Sexual Misconduct Plagues US Schools". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-04-12.
  6. Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution, Patrick Boyle, 1995
  7. Reese, Thomas J. (2004-03-22). "Facts, Myths and Questions". America. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  8. "Chapter 107 of the Acts of 2002: AN ACT REQUIRING CERTAIN RELIGIOUS OFFICIALS TO REPORT ABUSE OF CHILDREN". Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  9. Filteau, Jerry (2004). "Report says clergy sexual abuse brought 'smoke of Satan' into church". Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2008-03-10.
  10. Terry, Karen et al. (2004). "John Jay Report". John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
  11. Frawley-ODea, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (2007), p. 4
  12. Roberts, Tom (2009-03-20). "Bishops were warned of abusive priests". Retrieved 2009-07-29.
  13. Bono, Agostino. "John Jay Study Reveals Extent of Abuse Problem".

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