The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis


If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

Jesus demonstrates a special care and profoundly counter-cultural approach to children. When asked by the disciples “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he places a child in their midst.

He was acutely aware of their profound vulnerability in their dependence and trust in the goodness of others. We feel the sting of his uncharacteristic anger at those who would harm them, violate their trust and separate them from the love of the Father.


Quarantine and isolation have seen an explosion of domestic violence against children, women and other vulnerable populations.

Many children and youth were isolated in inadequate housing with abusive parents; the poorest children had no homes for shelter.

The disruption of school, sports and play is anticipated to have long term physical and mental health consequences.

Adverse childhood events such as pandemic affect moral formation and the capacity to trust.

History of clergy sexual abuse

Before pandemic, the sexual abuse of children and youth by Catholic clergy had caused devastating, life-long harm to victim-survivors, their families and communities, and to the entire Body of Christ. It has precipitated crises of faith in a loving God and loss of trust in the Church as a place of holiness and care.

Medicine teaches that healing requires an accurate diagnosis and misdiagnosis can be deadly. Diagnosis begins with the history of the illness in order to come to an accurate diagnosis of the underlying pathology. In previous work, I have explored the history in time periods of the early history, modern public revelations and responses, and the Pope Francis era.

Clergy sexual abuse of minors is a long-standing problem addressed in medieval penitentiaries and decrees as early as the Council of Elvira (306) and in canon law where it is a grave derelict or serious sin. It was managed internally and in secrecy.

Public revelations of clergy sexual abuse of minors began in the United States and Canada in the late 1970’s. Revelations arose not from Church leadership but through lawyers in criminal and civil cases and work by investigative journalists In May 1985, before a National Catholic Reporter (NCR) exposé, Fr. Thomas Doyle and colleagues presented a comprehensive analysis of the emerging issue to the annual gathering of the US bishops. The bishops tabled the report. Their 1988 Pedophilia Statement frames abuse as a societal issue, with no mention of the emerging Church experience.

In 1989, Archbishop Alphonsus Penney of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, convened a unique lay-led Commission to advise him on catastrophic abuse in that diocese. It identified systemic issues in urgent need of further study, including abuse of power, education of clergy and laity, sexuality, support of priests, and the Church’s avoidance of scandal. An Ad Hoc Committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) produced From Pain to Hope (1992), identifying the importance these issues but there was no formal follow-up.

In 1992, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved their voluntary guidelines, for responding to allegations but no identification of underlying issues.

John Paul II elected in 1978, set the tone for responding until his death in 2005. He did not issue a public statement on the crisis until his June 1993 Letter to the U.S. Bishops, which expressed sympathy for the suffering the scandal had caused the bishops and spoke of the abuse in the context of sin, culture and media bias against the Church, with no acknowledgement of any deeper ecclesial issue or the now global crisis especially in Ireland and Australia.

In June 2002, the USCCB produced its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That same year, 20 years after the public revelations, the clergy abuse issue erupted in Boston, Massachusetts, with the investigation of more than 90 priests of the archdiocese. Following his mismanagement and cover-up of cases, Cardinal Archbishop Law’s resignation was finally accepted by Pope John Paul II in December, 2002 and he was appointed Arch-Priest of Saint Mary Major. This was seen by many as an affirmation in the face of episcopal failure.

Pope Benedict XVI, after reviewing reports of clergy sexual abuse worldwide submitted to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, declared that:

We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. (2010 Christmas Greeting to the Curia)

Despite this admission, the October 2012 Synod of Bishops made no mention of the abuse crisis in its report despite its now global scope and massive media coverage.

Church leadership slowly but gradually responded with necessary revisions of canon law, policies and protocols for responding to allegations against priests, promotion of safe ministry programs and forensic audits, and background checks of Church workers. However, they failed to acknowledge the persistent failure of Church leadership to comply with long-standing canons and established protocols, as well as evidence of outright cover-up and disregard for the rules.

Lesson: Clergy sexual abuse is not a product of modern sexually permissive societies but a longstanding issue for the Church.

Pathology underlying clergy sexual abuse

The history of clergy sexual abuse manifests deep pathology in the Church contrary to the mission, words and witness of Jesus including:

*devastating physical, emotional and spiritual harm to children, youth and vulnerable others

*silence, secrecy and denial to avoid the scandal of loss of reputation

*abuse of power, authority and conscience

*failure of moral theology to form conscience and foster virtue

*the inability or unwillingness to address underlying systemic and cultural factors

*polarizing divisions regarding the nature of the crisis which are fracturing the Body of Christ and impeding healing.  

I have identified the pathology in the history as endemic which means it is multi-generational and pervasive in a community. Because it is endemic, the community is incapable of recognizing it as sickness. The pathology has become the normal.

Lesson: Reform and renewal of these pathologies are essential to healing and protection of the vulnerable.

The harms of clergy sexual abuse of minors

Healing cannot occur until we acknowledge the horrific emotional, psychological and physical consequences of childhood sexual abuse, most of it life-long without appropriate treatment. These consequences abound in legal testimony and a genre of survivor experience in heart-wrenching biographies and autobiographies and blogs from North America to Ireland and Australia. Experiences from the Global South are just emerging.

For most victims, there is a long time lapse from the experience of the abuse in childhood to its revelation. Survivors have feelings of guilt and shame and negative self-image; confusion about sexual norms, standards and identity; profound difficulties with trust and relationships; a sense of helplessness that interferes with education and employment; depression anxiety and anger; and suicidal tendencies and a small risk of becoming abusers themselves. Psychological counselling is an essential component of treatment as survivors may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and addictions.

The sexual exploitation of children and youth by clergy has direct and calamitous effects on faith and spirituality. They can feel violated and abandoned by God who did not stop the abuse, even when they begged. This loss of a loving and caring God is the greatest harm. Victims lose the support of a spiritual family and sharing in the liturgical and prayer life of the community. This damage was exacerbated when Church officials failed to believe victims and required a continuation of the secrecy.

Pope Francis’ diagnosis

From his emergence on the balcony at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis brought a humble, pastoral approach to the papacy. He also brought a unique capacity for discernment of systemic and cultural factors operative in the crisis. He identified some “temptations” of the Church: understanding the gospel as an ideology rather than a call to discipleship; functionalism, which reduces the Church to a non-governmental organization concerned with efficiency and leaving no room for transcendence; and clericalism, a particular temptation of clergy regarding privilege and power that includes complicit laity. (CELAM, July 2013)

In 2018, the fifth anniversary of Francis’ pontificate, the public crisis escalated with a new focus on episcopal leaders who had been found guilty or were under investigation for sexual abuse and cover-up. In his January 2018 visit to Chile, Pope Francis himself succumbed to the protection of a cleric and declared victims were guilty of calumny. Cardinal Sean O’Malley said this response caused great pain for survivors and “abandon[s] those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity.” The Pope sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to listen to victims. After reviewing his 2,300-page report, Pope Francis admitted his error, invited survivors to Rome and met with them personally.

An August 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report provided in excruciating detail the mismanagement of the sexual abuse of more than a thousand minors by more than three hundred priests from eight dioceses. While still reeling over this scandal, retired Washington, DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was found guilty of sins against the sixth commandment against children and adults, by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and dismissed from the clerical state. His rise to the highest ranks in the Church despite known horrific abuse of seminarians demonstrated that clergy sexual abuse extends far beyond minors and includes vulnerable adults.

Pope Francis convened the unprecedented 2019 Summit of clergy, laity and Religious to address the protection of minors from sexual abuse, openly and courageously using the CCCB principles of responsibility, accountability and transparency.

He has worked tirelessly to reform the Roman Curia for service to the Church. Pope Francis 2019 Vox Estis Lux Mundiand reporting of bishops and June 2021 Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts presented revisions for Book VI of the 1983 Code of Canon Law dealing with “Sanctions in the Church”

Lesson: Shared vulnerability in pandemic should enhance our capacity for empathy and compassion toward all those who suffer physical, emotional and spiritual harm.

While the focus has been on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in parishes, in Ireland, Australia and Canada, the tragic stories of institutional abuse by Religious in orphanages and residential schools has added to the complexity of abuse. It raises a number of theological, social and political factors requiring urgent attention including forced conversion to Christianity and disrespect for indigenous faith and beliefs; complicity with governmental programs of Indigenous assimilation and cultural genocide and colonialism, racism and white supremacy in the Church of the Global North.

All in the Church have a duty of atonement for all the harm done to trusting and vulnerable children and youth. First and foremost this demands justice and care for victims. Long term protection requires that we develop a culture of safeguarding children and the vulnerable that involves all in the Church. A culture of safeguarding requires conversion of both minds and hearts to Jesus’ interaction with children and practical “best practice” policies and protocols.

In stunning contradiction to Jesus’ countercultural care for children, the Church has adopted Greco-Roman patriarchal understandings of children as property, totally under the father’s authority. The sexual exploitation of children, child slavery, child labour and child soldiers have damaged and killed for generations. Atonement demands a theology of childhood based on Jesus’ call for all to become like children; the dire consequences, according to Jesus, of harming a child; and the interactions of Jesus with children. Karl Rahner began such a theology when he taught the unsurpassable value of childhood and critiqued the view that saw childhood as a “subordinate and preparatory function” for future stages of life and that:

“Childhood itself has a direct relationship with God. It touches on the absolute divinity of God not only as maturity, adulthood…but rather in a special way of its own.”(K. Rahner 1971p.36).

The promotion of resilience in child development is crucial for resistance to abuse and healing from it. In psychology it has come to mean the ability to respond effectively to and cope with trauma, adversity and failure. It is never returning to normal but a positive adaptation resulting in an ongoing protective capability. The interdisciplinary field of childhood studies has brought crucial insights that can inform our understanding of the development of children as moral and social agents.

Lesson Atonement for clergy sexual abuse requires reflection and reform of fundamental beliefs and practices about children.

The Prophetic Challenge

This is a time for a new generation of prophets. The Old Testament teaches us much about prophetic criticism and prophetic imagination that is linked to hope. Prophecy is not about fortune-telling. Prophetic criticism is about anguish from recognizing our failure to be the people of God we are called to be. Prophets break with triumphalism and oppression and move us to the freedom of God and to ways of justice and compassion in new circumstances.

Prophetic imagination helps us to imagine the people we could be with God’s grace.

A community that can generate prophecy needs at least four things:

*a long and available memory;

*a sense of pain and loss;

*the active practice of hope

*an effective mode of discourse (Brueggemann, 2001).

We have a powerful experience of pain and loss in the Church today. Can we learn from history and develop practices of discourse that open us to Resurrection hope in new life?

Lesson: Humility, courage and trust in the Holy Spirit are needed for real healing and ongoing prevention of harm to the vulnerable.

    For Discernment

    What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you?

     What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?

     What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?

    Key References

    Jean M. Bartunek, Mary Ann Hinsdale and James Keenan 2006, Church Ethics and Its Organizational Context: Learning from the Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.

    Marcia J. Bunge 2008 The Child in the Bible Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI.

    Jason Berry 2000, Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

    Walter Brueggemann, 2001 The Prophetic Imagination (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

    1. Demasure, K. A. Fuchs, H. Zollner (Eds.) 2018. Safeguarding: Reflecting on Child Abuse, Theology and Care. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.

    David Finkelhor, 1991, Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research, Free Press, NY.

    Allison Gopnik 1996 The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of LifePicador, N.Y.

    Marie Keenan, 2012 Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture New York: Oxford University Press.

    Nuala P. Kenny 2019 Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis, Novalis Publishers, Toronto, ON.

    1. Rahner 1971 “Ideas for a Theology of Childhood” Theological Investigations vol 8: 33-50.

    Stephen J. Rossetti, 1991, Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Twenty Third Publications; New London CT.

    1. J. Scicluna, H. Zollner, D. Ayotte. 2012 Toward Healing and Renewal: The 2012 Symposium on the Sexual Abuse of Minors Held at the Pontifical Gregorian University. New York: Paulist Press.