Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The defrocking of Catholic priest John Geoghan and the record financial settlement by the Diocese of Dallas in sexual abuse cases in 1998 heralded an era of crisis within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Its reverberations could be felt across all levels of American society and prompted awareness of the alarming scope of the problem.

Summary of Event

The 1960’s marked a tumultuous period in the history of the American Catholic Church. The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (1962-1965) (1962-1965; also known as Vatican II), Vatican II (1962-1965)[Vatican 02] Roman Catholic Church;Vatican II[Vatican 02] convened by Pope John XXIII, instituted reforms designed to bring the Church into the modern era. One of its effects, however, was that many traditional Catholics felt alienated by the changes. The publication of the anti-birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae Humanae Vitae (papal encyclical) by John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, in 1968 caused further rifts in the Church. More liberal Catholics expressed displeasure with the perceived unyielding posture of the Church on this issue, and a large number of practicing Catholics reportedly left the Church. During the decades to follow, the Church sought a sort of equilibrium. That equilibrium was to be severely shaken in the 1990’s. Roman Catholic Church;sexual molestation scandal Sexual abuse of children [kw]Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church (1998) [kw]Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church, Sexual (1998) [kw]Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church, Sexual Molestation (1998) [kw]Catholic Church, Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the (1998) [kw]Church, Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic (1998) Roman Catholic Church;sexual molestation scandal Sexual abuse of children [g]North America;1998: Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church[09900] [g]United States;1998: Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church[09900] [c]Crime and scandal;1998: Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church[09900] [c]Social issues and reform;1998: Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church[09900] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1998: Sexual Molestation Scandal Rocks the Catholic Church[09900] Law, Bernard Francis Porter, James Geoghan, John Kos, Rudolph

In the early years of the 1990’s, dozens of people stepped forward to claim that they were victims of sexual molestation by priests, most of the incidents having taken place between 1960 and 1980. Although the initial cases involved prepubescent male victims, cases were reported by female victims as well. The majority of charges, however, were brought by males who were adolescents at the time of the abuse. In many cases, they were altar boys who were molested by their local parish priests. More than four-thousand priests were ultimately charged with sexual abuse of minors as a result of the scandal.

The attention of the media on these cases encouraged thousands more alleged victims to step forward, and as their accusations were made public, journalists and civil authorities began a comprehensive investigation. Suits were filed on behalf of the victims, and depositions of church authorities were collected to determine if there was culpability on the part of the Church.

The first priest to serve a jail sentence for child sexual abuse was James Porter, who was sentenced to six months in prison in Minnesota in 1992 and to eighteen to twenty years in prison in Massachusetts in 1993. He admitted to sexually molesting up to one hundred boys and girls while serving as a priest from 1960 to 1974. Porter’s case shed light on the common pattern of molestation, accusation, and transferal to other parishes that continued for years. In Porter’s case, this pattern was interrupted by periodic attempts at treatment, including electroshock therapy and a prolonged stay at an institution designed for priests with sexual abuse problems.

The year 1998 was pivotal in the sexual abuse scandal of the American Catholic Church. The Diocese of Boston defrocked the Reverend John Geoghan after more than one hundred of his alleged victims stepped forward with charges of child molestation. Facing multimillion-dollar settlements (more than $130 million alone for Geoghan’s victims), the Archdiocese of Boston underwent a severe financial crisis, declaring bankruptcy and closing numerous schools and parish churches. It is largely because of accusations of cover-up by Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston and Geoghan’s superior during and after his years in Boston, that widespread protests were staged to force Law’s resignation.

John Geoghan (left), a defrocked Catholic priest accused of molesting more than 130 children, listens in Middlesex Superior Court in January, 2002, as he is convicted of sexually assaulting a ten-year-old boy in 1991. The Geoghan case signaled the beginning of a gradual uncovering of thousands of cases of molestation perpetrated by Catholic priests.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the same year, the Diocese of Dallas paid out court settlements of $30.9 million to twelve victims of sexual abuse committed by diocesan priest Rudolph Kos. Both sides agreed to this substantially lesser amount than the original settlement ($119 million) because of the diocese’s claim that the original settlement would result in bankruptcy for the diocese. Kos, sentenced to life in prison for hundreds of accounts of sexual abuse of minors, was accused of sexual molestation during an eleven-year period (1981-1992) at three Dallas churches.

The sexual abuse scandal that resulted in unprecedented legal outcomes in 1998 was the basis of a series of investigative reports by the Boston Globe in 2002. The coverage initiated a great deal of debate as to the reasons for the occurrences of this behavior among clergy and religious. Although the instances of child abuse within the ranks of Catholic clergy are proportionally no higher than those within other denominations or professions, the requirement of celibacy became a focal point for speculation as to the cause of this problem. In addition, since most of the plaintiffs were young boys at the time of their abuse, it was proposed that homosexuality was at the root of the pedophilia. Part of the Church’s response to the crisis was not only to monitor priests’ activities much more closely while promising legal accountability but also to scrutinize candidates for the priesthood in order to weed out candidates who demonstrated “evidence of homosexuality.”

The psychological trauma inflicted on the victims of clergy sexual abuse led many of them to become involved with alcohol, drugs, and even suicide. Support groups were formed to help these victims deal with their experiences. On a national level, a grassroots group of clergy, laypersons, and religious responded to the cries of the victims by forming “the Voice of the Faithful” movement in 2002. In the face of much hierarchical criticism, the group advocated for greater involvement of the laity in church governance, support for the abused victims and for “priests of integrity,” more honesty and accountability by the hierarchy, and structural change within the Church.


While instances of sexual abuse by clergy have occurred in many countries, and studies have indicated consistent patterns in its frequency by religious tradition, geographical area, and institutional structure, the problem in the Catholic Church gained greater media attention in the U.S. because American culture allowed victims to step forward without stigma and to make legal accusations with the potential for significant financial recompense. The Geoghan case signaled the beginning of a gradual uncovering of thousands of cases perpetrated by Catholic priests throughout the country.

What most provoked the ire of Catholics and non-Catholics alike was the practice of many local bishops of dealing with these accusations by removing the charged priests and relocating them to other parishes, sometimes without any attempts at psychological treatment. At times, psychologists assured local bishops that perpetrators of these crimes were “healed” after intensive periods of therapy. As more and more victims stepped forward, the scope of the problem became apparent, causing a financial crisis for the Church as millions of dollars were paid out in compensatory payments and numerous churches and parishes had to be closed and property sold to finance the awards. The psychological toll that this abuse took on the victims and their families was accompanied by a crisis of faith for many American Catholics who became disillusioned with the perceived corruption of their ordained priests and bishops. The scandal also led to the recognition of many additional cases of sexual misconduct in public and private venues and evoked a critical analysis of societal factors that may have been instrumental in fostering this kind of activity. Roman Catholic Church;sexual molestation scandal Sexual abuse of children

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boston Globe. Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Detailed coverage of the unearthing of the sex abuse story in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2001-2002. Includes victims’ graphic stories as well as discussion of the steps of the alleged official cover-up and Boston Catholics’ reactions to the scandal.
  • 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. Massive compilation of moving vignettes of numerous real-life incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy and spanning half a century. Argues that American society’s misguided view of homosexuality contributed to this phenomenon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plante, Thomas G., ed. Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Collection of essays dealing with the sex abuse scandal in the Church from authorities ranging from psychologists to the former director of a treatment facility for abusive clergy.

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