Fighting Against Sexual Abuse In The Catholic Church

By Leslie C. Griffin
Center for Inquiry
September 11, 2018

The stories of sexual abuse are seemingly unending. A Pennsylvania grand jury gave us horrible details of seventy years of sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses. The report revealed that over 1,000 children were harmed by over 300 clergy. The grand jury tells us, for example, that

One of these priests ejaculated in the mouth of a seven-year-old. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

Their bishops covered the abuse up instead of doing anything to help children. There are probably thousands more victims, unreported or dead.

Some people named in the report argued in court that the report shouldn’t even be published. As usual, they were focused on the perpetrators’ needs instead of the victims’ rights. To date, their names are blocked out in the released report.

I worked on a brief in that case, arguing for two organizations that the whole report needed to be made public.

The truth needs to be released so that the victims get support and vindication for bravely coming forward and telling the grand jury about the terrible abuses they suffered. The brief’s lead author, Marci Hamilton, who has defended children’s rights for a long time, wrote that the report

…fills in more details of arrogant and thoughtless bishops, craven pedophile priests, and a system that rewards the secrecy that endangers children. While we have seen this before, it’s still shocking to read just how impervious this institution has been to the suffering of little children.

The church has long been impervious to the suffering of little children. Hamilton’s organization, CHILD USA, has also honored Richard Sipe’s work for children. Sipe, a leading opponent of clerical sexual abuse, died on August 9, 2018.

He was a psychotherapist and former priest who revealed as much about clerical sexual abuse as any other author. The church, as it did in Pennsylvania, California, Boston, and throughout the world, ignored his research and conclusions for over forty years. His website,, is a valuable source of information about the lengthy abuse of children and seminarians in the Catholic Church.

In July of this year, we received the shocking news that former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, one of the most prominent and powerful of the church’s leaders, had just retired from the College of Cardinals.

Many people had just learned that McCarrick had sexually harassed and abused seminarians during his rise to the top of the church. He even told the abused to call him Uncle Ted! Sipe, however, had revealed graphic details of McCarrick’s sexual activity with seminarians or priests in a May 12, 2010, post.

This is another reminder that abusers in the church are rarely punished in a way that matches their terrible behavior. It takes a lot of time and patience for victims to have things go their way. Usually someone is at work, trying to hide all the bad things anyone could find.

Reading over Sipe’s website after his death, I saw a reference to a movie series, The Keepers, about “Who Killed Sister Cathy?,” which was released last year by Netflix. The seven-part documentary tells a story previously unknown to me, of Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered in November 1969 by a still-uncertain assailant.

Sister Cathy was a beautiful twenty-six-year-old English teacher at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School. The movie tells a sad—yet now sadly believable—story of her murder. No one was arrested after her body was found in 1970. The investigation restarted when two of her former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, decided to work together to find her murderer.

After all these years, they still love and miss their teacher. Other women who had fond and loving memories of the young teacher, Sister Cathy, still want justice for her. They want to find her murderer, and they started a Facebook page to add to their long research of her life and her possible killer.

Hoskins and Schaub uncovered a terrible story. They slowly learned that Fr. Joseph Maskell, a prominent priest at the school, had repeatedly sexually abused their Catholic classmates. Father Neil Magnus, another priest at the school, was also involved. On the film some of those women give details about how they were repeatedly raped, assaulted, harassed, or molested.

We learn that Sister Cathy was told of the abuse and promised to do something about it. Soon after that, she was murdered. Sister Cathy was probably killed so she would never reveal the abuse. Maskell even took one of his abuse victims to see Sister Cathy’s body, so that she would understand the dangers of revealing information. The victim blocked memories of her abuse and the grave visit for over twenty years.

With The Keepers, it is as if the details revealed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report are put on film for us to relive. The women’s experience is a reminder of how people’s memories of their sexual abuse develop. Several of the women, who had been repeatedly warned by Maskell not to say anything of his actions, had completely blocked out all memories of their abuse.

These women had buried their memories of rape, abuse, and harassment, which were repeatedly done to them when Father Maskell would call them out of class to report to his office and then abused them. It is a good reminder that scientific studies show that the average age of disclosure is fifty-two, not two years after the abuse itself.

At the end of the movie, we learn that Maskell was moved to Keough school because he had abused a male student at another nearby parish. The male student tells the story of his energetic mother, who complained to church authorities until Maskell was transferred away from them. As usually happened around the world, however, Maskell was just transferred up the street to Keough, where he continued to do harm.

We’ve learned from all the abuse cases, including those revealed to the Pennsylvania grand jury, that bishops and priests repeatedly transferred abusers to do more harm instead of ensuring they were stopped and punished and their victims helped.

What we learn in the movie is what the investigators learned: that Sister Cathy had learned from the students about the abuse and had promised to do something about it. The movie identifies many possible suspects, all of whom would have wanted her to stay silent about abuse and had the motive to kill her to keep her from talking. And then, at different times, priests, bishops, police, politicians, and prosecutors kept the truth buried instead of bringing it to life.

We still don’t know who Cathy’s murderer was. But there are several identified options, all of them connected with the priest and his wrongdoing.

We learn in the movie that Maryland’s statute of limitations (SOL) blocked the lawsuit that abuse victims brought against the church in the 1990s because they were over age twenty-five. Today, Pennsylvania also has very restrictive statutes of limitations, which keep the perpetrators in the report from facing legal sanction. It is victims aged fifty for the criminal SOL (of the state versus the perpetrators), and victims aged thirty for the civil SOL (of the abused versus their attackers). The grand jury’s report included victims in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and one who was eighty-three. They need a change in the law.

Based on their understanding of the horrors of the church’s abuse, the grand jurors recommended that the state just get rid of the criminal statute of limitations, as other states have. They also recommended a “civil window,” which would “let older victims sue the diocese for the damage inflicted on their lives when they were kids. We saw these victims; they are marked for life.” A civil window restores a period of time when people who had lost their cases under the old SOL could refile them.

Read the grand jury’s report and Sipe’s website. Then watch the movie. It is heartbreaking to hear the story of this beautiful sister’s life, undone by her commitment to the victims.

CFI has written previously about our thoughts and concerns regarding the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. We’ve also made available the full report. 

We need to start learning the lesson that victims should come first. Listen to the grand jurors, who understand what the victims suffered and want the state to give them a new day in court. Join the push for SOL reform. That is much better than what we learn from Sipe, the grand jury, and The Keepers: that the victims frequently lose much more than they win.


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