Clergy Sexual Abuse: Dirty Secret Comes to Light

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Clergy Sexual Abuse: Dirty Secret Comes to Light

Newspaper article

By: Richard Higgins

Date: May 11, 1990

Source: Higgins, Richard. "Clergy Sexual Abuse: Dirty Secret Comes to Light." Boston Globe (May 11, 1990).

About the Author: Richard Higgins is a writer, book editor, and a former reporter for the Boston Globe. Higgins is a graduate of Holy Cross College in Indiana and has master's degrees from Columbia Journalism School and Harvard Divinity School.


In 1985, the first allegations of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests emerged in a confidential memo written by Thomas Doyle, a cannon lawyer for the Vatican, to the bishops of the United States. The memo cited thirty cases and over one hundred victims of alleged sex crimes perpetrated by priests against parishioners and estimated a ten-year cost to the church of over $1 billion in settlements and legal fees. Also in 1985, Jason Berry, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, published an examination of nationwide allegations of sexual misconduct by priests. Four years later, in 1989, Joseph Ferrario became the first U.S. bishop accused of molestation charges, which were later dismissed by the court. The bishops agreed, in 1992, to a set of principles to govern the handling of accusations of sexual abuse by priests. Berry continued his investigations and by that same year had documented over four hundred cases of sexual misconduct by priests, many perpetrated against children.

In June of 2001, Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of the Boston diocese, admitted in a routine court filing that he appointed defrocked priest John Geoghan to the position of vicar of a parochial school despite seventeen years of allegations of sexual abuse, including the molestation of seven boys. The archdiocese had received over 150 allegations of misconduct by Geoghan over his career and he was eventually defrocked in 1989. The admission opened a floodgate of charges against priests. Though claims of sex abuse by priests certainly did not begin in 2002, their number skyrocketed that year leading to a public outcry and eventually a response by the Vatican. Law's admission occurred during the trial of Geoghan, who faced charges of indecent assault and battery. He was con-victed of fondling a young boy at a pool and sentenced to nine to ten years in prison. The Boston Archdiocese eventually reached a $10 million settlement with eighty-six other alleged victims. While incarcerated, Geoghan awaited trial for child rape; however, he was killed by another inmate.

By 2002, the Boston Archdiocese received over five hundred allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and the church had paid out at least $40 million in settlements to victims. Some of the most notorious priests allegedly engaged in activities over decades and were shuffled from parish to parish once allegations arose regarding their conduct. Joseph Birmingham was one such priest. Birmingham, who died in 1989, allegedly abused over fifty boys in his twenty-nine years as a priest. According to the Boston Globe, the archdiocese ignored complaints against Birmingham.

Another example of the archdiocese's inaction against accusations of sexual abuse occurred in dealing with Paul Shanley. Shanley operated a street ministry program during the 1960s and 1970s to provide guidance and assistance to young runaways, drug addicts, and youths struggling with their sexual identity. According to reports, Shanley took advantage of those youths participating in the program. The archdiocese received complaints regarding Shanley's behavior and as a result, transferred him from parish to parish until he was finally transferred to California with the recommendation of Cardinal Law. Shanley, who publicly advocated sex with boys, was arrested in San Diego and returned to Boston to face ten counts of child rape charges and six counts of indecent assault and battery. In February 2005, he was sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison for two counts of child rape and two counts of indecent assault on a child under fourteen years of age.


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In April 2002, Pope John Paul II called a conference of the United States cardinals and tasked them with the creation of a policy to handle allegations and prevent future cases from occurring. The pope stated, "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." In response to the pope's admonishing, the U.S. bishops met in June of 2002 and agreed on a policy for handling allegations. The policy stated that an accused priest would be automatically removed from his position, but not automatically defrocked from the priesthood. Priests who have become, "notorious and [are] guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors" would be submitted to a special course of action, with the role to defrock the priest. The Vatican initially rejected this document and in November of 2002, the bishops passed an amendment to immediately remove any priest who is convicted of engaging in sexual abuse of a minor. By this time, over 325 of the nation's 46,000 priests had been reassigned due to allegations of sexual misconduct. By December, the Vatican accepted the new policy toward sexual predators within the priesthood. In addition, Cardinal Bernard Law, of the Boston Archdiocese, resigned his position under pressure from the public.


Web sites

Boston Globe. "Spotlight Investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

CBS News. "Instruction on the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

――――― "Taint of Church Sex Scandal Lingers." 〈〉 (accessed April 1, 2006).

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Clergy Sexual Abuse: Dirty Secret Comes to Light

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