Exposing Secrets of the Catholic Church

By Timothy Lytton
American Sexuality Magazine

August 4, 2008

How civil lawsuits brought the sex abuse scandal to light

The sexual abuse of children by priests has been called the “greatest crisis Catholicism has faced since the reformation.” The prevalence of clergy sexual abuse and its shocking cover-up by church officials is by now well known. Less well understood, however, is the crucial role played by civil lawsuits in bringing the scandal to light, focusing attention on the need for institutional reform, and spurring church leaders and public officials into action. Indeed, the public awareness and institutional reforms prompted by civil lawsuits represent a major advance in efforts to address child sexual abuse more generally.

Prior to the filing of a 1984 lawsuit against the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, and Father Gilbert Gauthe for Gauthe’s molestation of dozens of boys over many years, local media reporting of clergy sexual abuse was scant and infrequent, and there was no national media coverage of the issue. Prosecutions were rare, public discussion and policy debate nonexistent. Ongoing litigation drama in the Gauthe case—pleadings that named high church officials as defendants, shocking revelations during the discovery process, and tearful trial testimony by an eleven-year-old sexual abuse victim—generated sustained local coverage in Lafayette and attracted regional and national media attention. The case began the process of raising awareness about clergy sexual abuse.

Other high profile cases filed across the country over the next two decades—involving such notorious pedophiles as James Porter in Fall River, Massachusetts; Rudolph Kos in Dallas; Oliver O’Grady in California; and John Geoghan in Boston—sustained periodic national press coverage of the issue.

These cases all led to key policy reforms within the Church. Following the Gauthe case in 1984, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops held intensive discussions on the issue in Collegeville, Minnesota. After the Porter case in 1992, the bishops adopted a nonbinding policy consisting of “Five Principles” for addressing allegations. And in the wake of the Geoghan case in 2002, the bishops promulgated a new mandatory national policy—the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People—subsequently approved by the Vatican. The policy results have been dramatic: compensation and treatment for victims, removal of proven perpetrators from ministry, mandatory reporting of abuse to law enforcement authorities, training for church personnel in detecting and investigating abuse allegations, and public disclosure of church officials’ roles in facilitating decades of child sexual abuse. While victim advocates debate the effectiveness of these policies, there can be no doubt that they represent a significant change in the way the Church deals with the problem.

Government policymakers have also been spurred into action. Twenty years of civil litigation and the public outrage it has generated have made it politically safe for local prosecutors and state attorney generals to launch extensive investigations, publish detailed reports on clergy sexual abuse within their jurisdictions and, in some cases, to prosecute perpetrators. In the wake of civil litigation and at the urging of abuse victims and their attorneys, state legislatures have passed laws mandating that clergy members report abuse, imposing new criminal penalties for child endangerment, removing civil damage caps, and extending statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.

But clergy sexual abuse litigation has done more than merely reform the Church. It has also heightened sensitivity to child sexual abuse in other contexts. Consider the 2006 Congressional page scandal. On September 30, The New York Times ran a front-page story below the fold entitled “Lawmaker Quits Over E-Mail Sent to Teenage Pages,” about Florida Congressman Mark Foley’s resignation in the face of reports that he had sent sexually explicit email messages to Congressional pages in 2005. Four days later, the story made it to the top of the front page and was now about the failure of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to take action against Foley earlier. The headline, “Hastert Fights to Save Job in Scandal,” reflects how easily a story that would have been confined to the misconduct of a single Congressman prior to clergy sexual abuse litigation, was cast in the now familiar frame of institutional failure and managerial irresponsibility. The Op-Ed page ran an essay by a former page, now a law professor, outlining institutional reforms for the oversight of the page program. For those who missed the obvious influence of the clergy sexual abuse scandal on the framing of the Congressional page scandal, the Sunday Week in Review section printed a cartoon depicting Hastert dressed as a bishop whispering to an aide wearing a Roman collar, “We should’ve just moved Foley to another Parish.”

The focus on the institutional failures that facilitate child sexual abuse is undoubtedly one of the most important legacies of clergy sexual abuse litigation. As a lawyer for the Los Angeles Archdiocese put it, “now, of course, it’s widely understood that organizations do bear responsibility for the criminal misbehavior of members to the extent that it is foreseeable. That’s probably a positive thing that came out of all this. That the law, in its wisdom and experience, examined this phenomenon and decided that we need deeper levels of accountability.”

Timothy D. Lytton is a law professor at Albany Law School and author of Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse (Harvard University Press, 2008). For more about the book, visit This is an abbreviated version of an article previously published in the Boston Globe.


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