Crusade Against Clergy Abuse

Rev. Thomas Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.

1. Sexual abuse by Catholic clergy became the subject of widespread publicly in 1984 with the celebrated case of Father Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana. This led to numerous revelations of similar cases of abuse around the United States and in other countries as well. At the outset of the present era the crisis was erroneously referred to as a “pedophilia problem.” Experience has shown that only 20% of clergy perpetrators are true pedophiles while the majority are classified as ephebophiles since their victims are younger adolescents. The publicity generated from the abuse cases involving minor victims has also provoked revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse of vulnerable adults, mostly women. In any event, the age and gender of the victim are irrelevant since the sexual encounter constitutes abusive behavior by a trusted clergyman perpetrated on one with less emotional strength and spiritual power than the priest and one who is in a vulnerable position from which he or she cannot mount an adequate defense.

2. Although clergy sexual abuse has been well documented from the earliest years of the Catholic Church the present era is unique. The victims of clergy abuse had first turned to the Church authorities for help, expecting that the Church’s legal system, known as Canon Law, would provide processes whereby victims would be justly treated and perpetrators properly dealt with and prevented from a continued ministry. Instead, Church officials routinely responded to victims by intimidating them in hopes of obtaining their silence. They also manipulated, stonewalled, deceived and threatened victims. Beginning in 1985, frustrated victims of clergy sexual abuse began to approach the civil courts for relief when the legal system of their own church failed to act. Thus, for the first time in Church history the victims of the clergy turned to the secular legal system for relief. While it is historically true that the civil courts had seen clergy sex cases prior to 1984 , there were virtually no instances where the Catholic laity had sued a bishop for civil damages resulting from clergy sex abuse. As the cases rapidly increased in courts throughout the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland, the defendant dioceses and religious orders mounted a variety of defenses. Among these has been the recurring claim that this was a phenomenon new to the late 20th century. Furthermore many claimed that they had no way of predicting that clergy would sexually abuse since such an outbreak had never happened before. A variation on this claim sought to shift blame to the medical community, claiming that psychiatrists and psychologists admitted they knew little of pedophilia and related sexual disorders and therefore were not able to properly diagnose the disorder or to provide competent prognoses for future behavior.

3. The Catholic Church was officially recognized by Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. With this recognition the religious leaders, soon to be known as the “clergy” gradually evolved into a separate, privileged class, the most exalted members of which were the bishops. Although celibacy did not become a universally mandated state for clerics of the western Church until the 12th century (2nd Lateran Council, 1139) various church leaders began to advocate it by the 4th century. The earliest recorded church legislation is from the council of Elvira (Spain, 306 AD). Half of the canons passed dealt with sexual behavior of one kind or another and included penalties assessed for clerics who committed adultery or fornication. Though it did not make specific mention of homosexual activities by the clergy, this early Council reflected the church’s official attitude toward same-sex relationships: men who had sex with young boys were deprived of communion even on their deathbed.

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