Roman Catholic Church’s culture of child sexual abuse

Jamaica Gleaner [Kington, Jamaica]

May 9, 2023

By Michael Abrahams

In April 2023, Maryland’s top prosecutor, State Attorney General Anthony Brown, accused Catholic Church officials in Baltimore of covering up the sexual abuse of over 600 children over 60 years, some of whom were “preyed upon by multiple abusers over decades”.

Sounds familiar? That is because it is. Child sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are like a recurring decimal, with boys being the main targets. Back in 2002, in one of the biggest scandals to rock the Church, an investigation found over 500 victims of abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in that city.

And the hits just kept on coming.

In 2017, an investigation in Australia found 4,444 claimants of abuse at the hands of that institution, four times the number of allegations associated with any other religious group. In one monastic order, two-fifths of its membership were alleged perpetrators.

In Germany in 2018, it was reported that an investigation found nearly 3,700 cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy over 68 years. Approximately 1,670 priests were implicated.

An independent inquiry in France in 2021 found that there were about 216,000 victims of sexual abuse carried out by the Catholic Church’s clergy in that country between 1950 and 2020, with an additional 114,000 abused by lay people in ecclesiastical service. The number of accused priests was conservatively estimated at 3,000.

In Germany again, in 2022, a university study found that clergy abused at least 610 underage victims in the western German diocese of Münster. With many cases going unreported, researchers estimate the actual number of victims could be 10 times as high.

In February this year, it was revealed that Catholic clergy in Portugal had abused nearly 5,000 children since 1950.


One may argue that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only institution where children are sexually molested, and that argument is factual. However, it is unlikely that one will find an organisation that has racked up a higher body count and damaged more children in this way.

According to a 2004 research by John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 4,392 Catholic priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 have been plausibly accused of underage sexual abuse by 10,667 individuals. Catholic dioceses in the US have paid over $3 billion in compensation to sexual abuse victims. In May 2017, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Vatican had a 2,000-case backlog of sex abuse cases.

Even an iota above zero tolerance for child abuse is unacceptable. What is disturbing is that even at the pinnacle of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, the attitudes reflect too much tolerance.

For example, following the Boston scandal, it was discovered that Cardinal Bernard Law had covered up the serial rape of children by Catholic priests, including Father John Geoghan, who was moved by Law from parish to parish where he molested over 130 boys, essentially embarking on a child-raping tour. Instead of punishing Law for enabling the violation of the minors, in May 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed him to a post in Rome as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

In 2005, Pope Benedict was personally accused in a lawsuit of conspiring to cover up the molestation of three boys in Texas by a seminarian. Rather than face the music, he sought and obtained immunity from prosecution as head of state of the Holy See.

In 2011, Chile’s most notorious paedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, was found guilty of sexual abuse and convicted. One of his protégés, Juan Barros, was accused by survivors of witnessing the abuse they suffered at the hands of Karadima and facilitating their trauma. However, in 2015, Pope Francis named Barros Bishop of Osorno despite the protests of parishioners, bishops and even the archbishop of Santiago de Chile, referring to accusations against Barros as “calumny”. The pontiff was also caught on video telling a pilgrim in Rome that Osorno parishioners were suffering because they were “dumb” and “twisted by the left”.


And in a disturbingly astounding case of déjà vu (à la Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bernard Law), when Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, an Argentinian priest accused of sexually abusing seminarians, resigned from his diocese in August 2017, Pope Francis brought him to the Vatican the following December to take up a new job created especially for him.

Even when some clergy try to do the right thing and resign when scandals under their watch are uncovered, their requests are often denied. For example, six German Catholic prelates have offered their resignations to Pope Francis in recent years, but the pontiff only accepted one.

The Roman Catholic Church’s blasé attitude towards molesting and raping children extends from the top all the way down, as children continue to be violated with impunity. It is not that clergy never get punished by the organisation. Priests do get defrocked. However, the fact remains that too many get away with their crimes and still have access to minors.

An Associated Press investigation revealed in 2019 that 1,700 priests and other clergy members who the Roman Catholic Church considers credibly accused of child sexual abuse were “living under the radar with little to no oversight from religious authorities or law enforcement”.

The Church consistently places doctrine above the safety of children. Indeed, after the investigation in Australia called for reforms that would make failure to report child sex abuse a criminal offence, the archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart, said he would rather go to jail than report child abuse heard in confession, claiming, “communication with God is of a higher order”. The fact that the Catholic Church in Victoria has been implicated in a reported 40 suicides among about 620 sexual abuse victims makes the archbishop’s words extremely disturbing. The harsh truth is that the Catholic Church has been a haven for child molesters, with the licentious dispensation of Catholic clergy presenting a constant threat to the well-being of minors.

In 2019, in response to the deluge of child sexual abuse accusations levelled at Catholic clergy, Pope Francis promulgated the Vos estis lux mundi, a document aimed at establishing new procedural norms to combat sexual abuse and ensure that clergy are held accountable for their actions. In March this year, he expanded it to cover lay leaders.

Will this make a significant difference? Only time will tell. But with the organisation’s dismal track record, it is not very likely.