Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A series of articles in the Boston Globe revealed the systematic efforts of the Roman Catholic archdiocese to cover up incidents of sexual abuse by priests and to silence victims wishing to bring these crimes to the attention of authorities and the public. The revelations touched off a nationwide flurry of accusations by others claiming of similar abuse, some of whom were molested decades earlier, as children.

Summary of Event

On January 6, 2002, the Boston Globe ran the first of what would be hundreds of news stories detailing sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. The initial story, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” focused on John Geoghan, a Catholic priest defrocked in 1998, whose eighty-six known victims accused him of molesting them. Some of his acts dated back more than three decades. [kw]Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests (Jan. 6, 2002) [kw]Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests, Boston Globe Reports on (Jan. 6, 2002) [kw]Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests, Boston Globe Reports on Child (Jan. 6, 2002) [kw]Catholic Priests, Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman (Jan. 6, 2002) Child abuse;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests] Roman Catholic Church;priests scandal Boston Globe Law, Bernard Geoghan, John Pedophilia;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests] Child abuse;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests] Roman Catholic Church;priests scandal Boston Globe Law, Bernard Geoghan, John Pedophilia;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests] [g]United States;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Publishing and journalism;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Sex crimes;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Religion;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Public morals;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Families and children;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] [c]Law and the courts;Jan. 6, 2002: Boston Globe Reports on Child Sexual Abuse by Roman Catholic Priests[03140] Garabedian, Mitchell Sweeney, Constance M. Birmingham, Joseph Shanley, Paul Gregory, Wilton D. Keating,Frank John Paul II Benedict XVI

John Geoghan, left, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, listens in court in January, 2002, after he is convicted of sexually assaulting a boy in 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The exposure of an individual member of the clergy as a sex offender was not new to the Church. Cases had been reported in Boston and elsewhere for at least half a century. What made the 2002 story unusual, and what would eventually have a catastrophic impact on the Catholic Church in Boston and indeed throughout the country and the world, was the revelation that Geoghan and other priests had been protected from exposure and prosecution by Church authorities who had frequently reassigned priests from parish to parish, provided clandestine settlements to their accusers in return for keeping incidents secret, and in some cases intimidated victims by threatening retribution if they made their accusations public.

The Boston sexual abuse scandal began during the mid-1990’s when attorney Mitchell Garabedian began filing suits on behalf of plaintiffs claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Geoghan. To determine whether other victims or other abusers existed, Garabedian petitioned for access to Church records. Because courts throughout the United States historically considered these records private, Garabedian’s request was denied. However, in the course of legal proceedings in July, 2001, Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, admitted he had known of accusations against Geoghan since 1984 and was aware the priest had been transferred among parishes rather than removed from ministry.

Learning of Law’s admission and sensing there might be a larger story, the new editor of the Boston Globe set out to have the court grant the newspaper access to Church files. After months of argument, Superior Court judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled that the Church would be required to turn over all relevant documents to the Boston Globe. Although archdiocesan attorneys appealed, Sweeney stood firm by her order that documents be released by January, 2002. Meanwhile, a special investigative unit at the paper began compiling stories based on interviews with alleged victims of Geoghan and others and documenting what it believed was a long-standing systematic attempt by Church authorities to protect pedophiles—alleged and proven—from exposure and prosecution.

When it broke the initial story about Geoghan, the paper invited other victims to contact reporters with additional information. The paper received a flood of correspondence outlining abuses by dozens of priests, some cases dating back into the 1940’s. Initially, the activities of two other priests generated significant interest.

The Reverend Paul Shanley, formerly in the Boston archdiocese but at this time working in California, was accused of having sexually molested boys as early as 1966. For years, Shanley was vocal in challenging the Church’s position on homosexuality and was associated with the Man/Boy Love Association[Man Boy Love Association] North American Man/Boy Love Association, which advocates for consensual sex between men and boys. Shanley denied all charges, but a chorus of accusers outlined for news media and attorneys the many instances during which he had taken advantage of their trust. An even more egregious case was that involving the Reverend Joseph Birmingham, who had died in 1989. More than one hundred people came forward to relate stories of how, for more than thirty years, Birmingham had molested children.

Investigators poring over Church records discovered that Law and his predecessors had been aware of the criminal acts of Geoghan, Shanley, Birmingham, and others. Instead of removing them from ministry, however, they allowed priests accused of sex offenses to continue serving in parishes. In some cases, these men were given increasingly more important and sensitive assignments while victims were discouraged from pursuing claims against the accused. Technically, Church officials could claim they broke no laws, because priests were exempt from civil statutes requiring officials involved in counseling or health care to report cases of suspected abuse. The Massachusetts legislature moved quickly to close that loophole in February, 2002.

Although Geoghan was tried and convicted of one count of sexual abuse in February, 2002, the Boston Globe continued its series on the scandal, having identified nearly one hundred priests who had at one time been accused of sexually abusing minors. As weeks passed, what started out as a local scandal quickly became a national catastrophe for the Catholic Church. Emboldened by what they saw happening in Boston, victims of clergy abuse in dioceses across the United States began telling their stories publicly. Some had already received compensation and counseling, but the media was able to make a strong case that the problem was endemic throughout the Catholic Church in the United States. The media focused on the behavior of bishops and other Church officials in attempting to keep these incidents secret while allowing known sex offenders to continue in ministries often involving children. These official Church actions bordered on criminal misconduct. One attorney even suggested that Church officials be prosecuted under the federal law designed to root out organized crime in America.

In Boston, Cardinal Law initially attempted to stonewall attempts by the Boston Globe to pursue its investigation and dealt peremptorily with media and Catholic laypersons who peppered him for additional information. He refused to meet with victims, questioned the veracity of some accusations, repeatedly suggested he had not been aware of many of the incidents, and sought in other ways to deflect blame from the Church hierarchy. His actions seemed only to spur additional media attention and eventually turned many laypersons against the Church. Particularly outraged were victims-rights groups such as the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an organization founded in 1989. While Law was insisting that confidentiality was required to protect both the victim and the accused, a number of influential lay leaders began calling the scandal the American Catholic Church’s Watergate. Catholics held protests outside churches in Boston, and calls for Law’s resignation began almost immediately.

At the national level, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wilton D. Gregory, began working on measures for dealing with the spiraling problem facing his fellow prelates. By the June, 2002, meeting of the American bishops in Dallas, Gregory had managed to draft a document outlining ways bishops should deal with sex offenders under their jurisdiction. Gregory’s proposal included participation by the laity in reviewing cases of clergy sexual abuse. After significant debate, the document was approved. Because each bishop in the Catholic Church can act with relative autonomy within his diocese, however, Gregory had no way of enforcing these policies. Similar guidelines had been suggested during the mid-1990’s after a scandal in Chicago, but a number of bishops—including Cardinal Law—had argued against them because they infringed on a bishop’s discretionary authority. Additionally, before these procedures could be formally adopted, officials in Rome were required to approve them as well.

Despite these barriers, Gregory took the extraordinary step of appointing a thirteen-member lay commission, a national review board, to assist bishops in addressing issues concerning clergy accused of abuse. Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma and a strong Catholic, agreed to lead this board. The national review board was not well received by many bishops, though, as some considered it an undue intrusion of the laity into matters that had traditionally been handled by the clergy under the terms of canon law, the documents governing the organization and operation of the Church worldwide.

Prior to the June meeting, Gregory went to Rome to seek assistance from Pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, the Vatican tried to distance itself from the scandal in the United States. Already aware that sexual abuse by clergy was a worldwide problem, in 2001 the pope appointed a commission headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), the conservative theologian then serving as prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, to propose a method for handling the problem. Their solution was a mandate: Rather than permitting reassignment, every accused was to be brought before a secret clerical tribunal.

Although the pope met with Gregory and other American prelates to discuss the growing scandal, he suggested the bishops would have to handle matters themselves. Meanwhile, Vatican officials identified two main causes for the widespread sexual abuse: a lax moral climate in which some priests were seduced to forget their calling, and the presence of gays among the clergy. Some lay Catholics and people outside the Church blamed the problem on the requirement that priests remain celibate, but the Vatican refused to consider this possibility. Neither in the United States or Rome was there any acknowledgment that clerical culture, in which priests tended to protect each other while maintaining the facade of perfection for their actions, might lie at the root of the problem.

Church officials in Rome found guidelines approved in Dallas unacceptable. A new commission consisting of American bishops and representatives of the Vatican drafted a compromise document that curtailed involvement by the laity and instead dictated that accused priests have cases heard by clerical tribunals. The revised policies were approved by the American bishops at a meeting in November.

By the fall of 2002, Law began to see the hopelessness of his position as Boston’s Catholic leader. He finally met with victims to learn firsthand of their pain, but his gestures at reconciliation were too late. As the year drew to a close, suits against the Boston archdiocese were mounting. Garabedian was representing eighty-six clients, a Boston law firm was litigating against 135 priests, and other firms were involved in representing dozens of other victims. Many of the plaintiffs were suing not only the offenders but also Church officials. Law worked out a secret deal with Garabedian to settle with Geoghan’s victims for somewhere between $35 and $50 million, but the deal was vetoed by his finance council, a group of lay leaders who did not want Church donations paying for priests’ crimes. In early December, rumors began spreading that the archdiocese would file for bankruptcy to shield itself from further lawsuits.

Law flew to Rome and offered his resignation to the pope, who accepted it on December 13. By this time nearly every diocese in the United States had been touched by the scandal, and more than twelve hundred priests had been identified as abusers by nearly five thousand alleged victims. The Boston Globe ran its investigative series for more than a year, after publishing nearly nine hundred articles. The paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for the series, also added extensive coverage of the scandal to its Web site ( abuse/).


The effect of the sex abuse scandal on the Church in the United States was devastating, and it extended far beyond a single diocese. Already suffering from a shortage of priests, bishops were forced to remove more than four hundred from active ministry as a result of charges brought against them. Five bishops also were forced to resign. A handful of accused priests were tried for their crimes. Geoghan, who had gone to jail in 2002, was murdered in prison by another inmate the year after he was incarcerated. Shanley was convicted and sentenced to jail in 2005. Across the United States a number of accused priests committed suicide, and one was shot by one of his victims.

Lawsuits from individuals who had been abused in the past were settled for sums running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, the Boston archdiocese eventually paid $85 million to settle claims; the archdiocese of Los Angeles paid more than $600 million, Orange (California) $100 million, Dallas $31 million, and Louisville paid nearly $26 million. Because the Church traditionally considered each diocese an independent financial entity, individual bishops had to meet these financial obligations. As a result, many dioceses filed for bankruptcy protection between 2002 and 2007.

The effect on the Catholic laity was equally devastating. Taught to trust clergy as guides of morality and character, millions were shocked and repulsed by the growing litany of accusations. Church attendance sagged and financial contributions plummeted. Many lay people who wished to help reform the Church organized groups such as Voice of the Faithful, but their efforts were frequently rebuffed by Church officials fearful of giving the laity too strong a role in oversight of Church matters. This rejection led to even further distrust and alienation, and many influential Catholics were vocal in their resentment toward the American bishops and the Vatican.

Outside the Church, many Americans who already possessed anti-Catholic or antireligious sentiments took the opportunity to revel in the predicament Catholics were experiencing. Many people, however, including clergy from other Christian denominations and those from other faiths, expressed regret and sympathy for Catholics.

The stigma attached to the priesthood in the United States prompted John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, to speak frequently of the matter and offer numerous apologies during his April, 2008, visit to the United States. Benedict even met with some of the victims to offer the Church’s regrets for what had happened to them at the hands of men they trusted. Child abuse;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests] Roman Catholic Church;priests scandal Boston Globe Law, Bernard Geoghan, John Pedophilia;and Roman Catholic priests[Roman Catholic priests]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Jason, and Gerald Renner. Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II. New York: Free Press, 2004. Explores what the authors consider to be a decades-long systematic attempt by the Vatican to cover up or ignore charges of sexual abuse by priests in the United States and elsewhere.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cozzens, Donald B. The Changing Face of the Priesthood. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000. Examines reasons for the difficulties experienced by the Church in the United States in attracting a healthy cross-section of potential priests. Includes a chapter on the priesthood’s long-standing problems of pedophilia and molestation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">France, David. Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. Account of the scandal’s background and a detailed chronology and analysis of the crisis. Discusses the systematic attempts of Church officials to keep the scandal out of the public eye. Includes a list of principal figures and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greeley, Andrew M. Priests: A Calling in Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Systematic examination of the priesthood in the aftermath of the 2002 scandal. Designed to explain the nature of the priesthood, dispel myths about the causes for the unusually large number of pedophiles identified subsequent to initial reports of incidents in Boston, and outline root causes for the problems plaguing the Church in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe. Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Detailed coverage of the unearthing of the sex abuse scandal. Includes victims’ graphic stories as well as discussion of the alleged official cover-up and reactions to the scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Philip. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. 1996. New ed. Bridgewater, N.J.: Replica Books, 2000. Describes the climate in the Church that fostered reticence among those in authority to deal with matters of sexual abuse. Offers a historical perspective on the issue, which has plagued the Church for decades, if not longer.

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