Clergy sex abuse: Bishops meet, review policies

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops met in June 2011 in Seattle to revise policies approved nearly a decade ago in response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis. The current policies are set forth in what is formally known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter was passed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their meeting in Dallas in June 2002. The Vatican in May 2011 issued guidelines for bishops conferences around the world, and at their meeting June 15-17, 2011, the U.S. bishops adopted changes based on those recommendations and other lessons they have learned in recent years.

In July 2013, Pope Francis formally criminalized all sexual acts involving a child including assault, pornography and prostitution. Though there were already laws in other countries that criminalize the act, the new law only applies to those who live in Vatican City and those employed by the Vatican abroad. The act of criminalizing these offenses was Pope Francis’ response to the United Nations’ pressure to act on the issue and its request for more information regarding the church’s history of sexual abuse.


Church critics as well as some insiders say that the changes approved by the bishops were almost inconsequential, especially in light of at least three developments that have raised concerns about the hierarchy’s policies and track record on abuse:

  • In February 2011, a grand jury in Philadelphia recommended criminal charges against three priests and a lay teacher accused of sexually abusing children, and it recommended charging the former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The grand jury also released an accompanying report that was highly critical of the current archdiocesan leadership, saying it counted 37 priests still serving in ministry who were accused or suspected of misbehavior with children.
  • In May 2011, a priest in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography. Compounding the situation were revelations that Bishop Robert W. Finn and other top diocesan officials knew for months about images of young children, including at least one of a nude girl, on the priest’s computer but did not inform a diocesan review board as the 2002 charter recommends in cases involving possible abuse. In addition, a school principal had tried to warn diocesan leaders in a letter dated May 20110 about behaviors by the priest that had raised concerns.
  • Also in May 2011, researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a study on the “causes and context” of the Catholic clergy abuse phenomenon. The $1.8 million study, five years in the making, was commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and funded mainly by the hierarchy along with grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and several foundations; it pointed to a number of causes and explanations for the crisis rather than any single overriding factor.

The latest John Jay report traces the arc of the public crisis of abuse from the early reports in the mid-1980s to another wave of revelations in the early 1990s to the latest eruption of the scandal in 2002 and continuing up to the present. With each wave of media coverage the bishops took actions and made statements assuring the faithful that they were doing all they could.

But as the report’s authors note, public anger in the latest wave has tended to focus more on the bishops themselves whereas earlier outrage tended to target the abusers.

Another key development is that since early 2010 the abuse scandal has gone global. Sweeping reports on the record of clergy abuse in Ireland rocked that heavily Catholic country, and revelations of abuse in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy have also sparked crises in those countries.

Germany, where Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was born and raised as Joseph Ratzinger, has also been hit hard by the sex abuse scandal in recent years, and reports even raised questions about the former pontiff’s track record when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977-81.

This globalization of the scandal has prompted the Vatican to take increasingly strong steps on clergy abuse but has also led to growing criticism and even lawsuits against Rome over its responsibilty for the crisis.

Why it matters

Sexual abuse of children by clergy or other adult leaders is of grave concern to religious communities and in recent years has been the focus of reform efforts by many of them. But this type of abuse has not been studied as closely or comprehensively as many other crimes, and the experience of the Catholic Church can provide important information and lessons for all sectors of society.

News articles and research

  • “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010”

    Read a copy of the John Jay College report, titled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.” The report’s analysis received a great deal of criticism from all sides and continues to generate debate. The report also called on the bishops to develop further uniform and transparent policies for dealing with abusive priests and allegations of abuse, and to find a mechanism for holding bishops who fail to comply accountable.

  • “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People”

    See a copy of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that was revised in 2011.

  • “Sexual Acts With Children Officially Criminalized in Catholic Church”

    Read a July 12, 2013, article published on about Pope Francis’ decree that officially criminalizes sexual acts with children. Though the law only applies to the Vatican City, it was meant to send a message to the world about the pope’s commitment to ending the crimes that have disgraced the church for more than a decade.

  • “UN Presses Vatican Over Child Abuse in Catholic Church”

    Read a July 11, 2013, article published on about the United Nations’ investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

  • “Pope Francis urges decisive action against sex abuse”

    Read an April 5, 2013, article published by Reuters about Pope Francis’ first statement on clergy sex abuse. He urged the church to “act decisively” when dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct.

  • “Vatican sex abuse scandal: Priests paid to leave”

    Read a July 2, 2013, article published by The Christian Science Monitor about the clergy abuse scandal in Milwaukee. Newly released documents reveal plans to pay abusive priests to leave the church. The Milwaukee archdiocese is currently enmeshed in bankruptcy court after facing accusation of fraud from victims of sexual abuse.

  • “Catholic Church lobbies to avert sex abuse lawsuits”

    Read a July 15, 2013, article published in the Los Angeles Times about the Catholic Church’s attempts to shorten the amount of time people have to sue after an alleged sexual assault.

  • “The Catholic Church’s errant shepherds”

    Read a July 8, 2013, column published by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about the effect the Catholic Church’s history of predacious clergymen has had on the faith of their congregations.

  • “Investigation of Sexual Abuse by Clergy II”

    Read the Philadelphia grand jury findings and accompanying report after the case of a Philadelphia clergyman’s sexual misconduct . The archdiocese hired a former sex crimes prosecutor to review the personnel files of all the priests named in the grand jury’s report, and in March 2011 the archdiocese placed 21 priests on administrative leave pending a final report.

  • “Vatican official: Sexual abuse of minors requires strong response”

    Read a June 20, 2011, Catholic News Service story, “Vatican official: Sexual abuse of minors requires strong response,” about a February 2012 Vatican symposium to be held to help church officials combat clergy abuse of children.

  • “The European clerical abuse crisis, one year later”

    Read a June 7, 2011, blog post at America magazine’s website titled “The European clerical abuse crisis, one year later,” by the British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh.

  • “What Caused the Crisis? Key findings of the John Jay College Study on clergy sexual abuse”

    Read “What Caused the Crisis? Key findings of the John Jay College Study on clergy sexual abuse,” a story in the June 6, 2011, edition of America magazine by Kathleen McChesney, who was the first executive director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

  • “John Jay report not just about mistakes in 1960s, says sex abuse expert”

    Read a June 1, 2011, Catholic News Service story, “John Jay report not just about mistakes in 1960s, says sex abuse expert,” featuring an interview with Monica Applewhite, an expert in abuse prevention strategies.

  • “The Fog of Scandal”

    Read “The Fog of Scandal,” a May 12, 2011, essay in Commonweal magazine by Ana Maria Catanzaro, head of the clergy abuse review board for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She recounts her experience and dismay at the revelations of the grand jury.

  • “Top Vatican expert on sexual abuse explains new Catholic guidelines”

    Read a May 16, 2011, Q&A by Reuters with Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Justice Promoter in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its top expert on clerical sexual abuse issues, on the new Vatican guidelines.

  • “Audit finds sexual abuse was topic decades ago”

    Read a June 18, 2013, article published by The New York Times about the release of documents that trace the beginnings of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy back to 1932.

  • “Another Long Lent”

    Read “Another Long Lent,” an April 8, 2011, essay in Commonweal magazine about the Philadelphia crisis by Nicholas P. Cafardi, Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer and one of the original members of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth. He is the author of Before Dallas, a history of the clergy child sexual-abuse crisis in the United States.

  • “Ultra-Orthodox Group Affirms Abuse Cases Go First To Rabbi”

    The Catholic Church is not the only religious community battling the ministerial abuse problem. A May 25, 2011, article in The Forward, titled “Ultra-Orthodox Group Affirms Abuse Cases Go First To Rabbi,” shows how some Jewish religious authorities contend that Jews must consult a rabbi before going to law enforcement with suspicions of sexual abuse committed by community members.

  • “Child abuse & neglect”

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posts data and other information about child abuse on its Child Welfare Information Gateway.

National sources


  • Marie M. Fortune

    The Rev. Marie M. Fortune is founder and senior analyst at the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, which works to end sexual and domestic violence, particularly in faith communities. She co-edited Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections and is a United Church of Christ minister.

    A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she is a nationally known expert and educator on issues of clergy abuse, its causes and policies for prevention. She is a co-author of Sexual Abuse by Clergy: A Crisis for the Church. The FaithTrust Institute posts an extensive annotated bibliography that can be helpful in identifying additional experts on clergy sexual abuse.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He also is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and serves as co-director for the institute’s Initiative on Historical Studies of Religion. He is the author of Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which includes extensive discussion of the global impact of Pentecostalism.

    He is also author of a widely cited book, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. Jenkins, an Episcopalian, argues that the number of priests involved in abusing minors is not as great as popularly believed and is less than many comparative populations.


  • is a Massachusetts clearinghouse for information on sexual abuse by priests and on the hierarchy’s reactions. Contact President Terry McKiernan.

  • Conference of Major Superiors of Men

    The Conference of Major Superiors of Men represents religious orders in the United States. Unlike diocesan priests, the priests and brothers in religious orders – Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans, for example – generally live in communities and by their orders’ rules. They are subject to local diocese mandates, but concerns have been raised about how to integrate the bishops’ charter with the orders’ historic autonomy. The conference is based in Silver Spring, Md. Contact John Pavlik.

  • National Federation of Priests’ Councils

    The Chicago-based National Federation of Priests’ Councils is the leading voice for the nation’s Catholic priests. Contact the president, Father Anthony E. Cutcher.

  • Prevent Child Abuse America

    Prevent Child Abuse America is a nonprofit advocacy group that has been working nationally since 1972 to stop abuse and to educate the public. Dan Duffy is president and CEO.

  • The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

    The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States is a national, nonprofit organization that “develops, collects, and disseminates information, promotes comprehensive education about sexuality, and advocates the right of individuals to make responsible sexual choices.” The council has a range of data on sexual abuse and staff people who can interpret data. SIECUS has offices in New York and Washington, D.C. Contact Kristina Romines, SIECUS policy and communications coordinator,

  • Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

    SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the foremost advocacy group for clergy abuse victims. SNAP has regional directors and local support groups. Contact President Barbara Blaine in Chicago.

  • Voice of the Faithful

    Voice of the Faithful is the leading grass-roots lay organization to emerge in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. Based in Boston, the organization pushes for church governance reform and holding bishops accountable, and promotes victims rights. It has been critical of an effort to ban gay priests from ordination. Contact President Mark Mullaney.

  • The Vatican

    The official website of the Holy See.

  • Catholic Online

    Catholic Online  has over 5 million pages of resources including the largest online historical and biblical database about the Catholic Church.

  • Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights

    The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is a Catholic civil rights advocacy group that responds to religious discrimination issues concerning Catholics and other Americans. It is based in New York but has chapters throughout the United States. Bill Donohue is its president.

    The league has been especially critical of media coverage of the abuse scandal and produced its own report in 2004 on clergy abuse; more recently, the league posted its analysis of the 2011 John Jay report.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Leslie Lothstein

    Leslie Lothstein is psychology director of the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Lothstein speaks frequently about his many years treating clergy abusers. He can comment on problems in seminary training, the issue of homosexuality in the priesthood, and clergy abuse in the context of other denominations.

  • Frederick Berlin

    Frederick Berlin is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Sexual Behavior Consultation Unit. He is director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma in Baltimore. He was a consultant to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse from its inception to 2000.

  • Merle Longwood

    Merle Longwood of Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., is a professor of religious studies (and a Lutheran at the Franciscan school) who has studied the issue of sexuality and Catholicism. At a panel on the sexual abuse crisis at the American Academy of Religion Conference in 2004, Longwood argued that clergy sex abuse is not limited to Catholic clergy or to the United States, and he was critical of efforts to tie homosexuality to the abuse crisis. Longwood also argued that some church officials see sexual abuse of women and girls as less severe than the abuse of boys because homosexuality is considered more evil and contrary to natural law. He is co-editor of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Trusting the Clergy?

  • John Loftus

    John Loftus is a former minister and the author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008). He followed up that book with an anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010). His blog is called Debunking Christianity. Loftus lives in Indiana.

    He was head of the Southdown Institute from 1986 to 1993. The institute, in Aurora, Ontario, is a leading treatment center for clergy abusers.

In the South

  • Charlotte Rolnick Schwab

    Charlotte Rolnick Schwab is a psychotherapist and author who has lectured on the issue of sexual abuse and clergy, especially in Judaism. She draws parallels between what is happening in the Catholic Church and what goes on in other denominations and faiths. Schwab is the author of Sex, Lies and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust (1stBooks Library, 2002). Crucial issues, she says, are careful screening of candidates before ordination, policies for reporting by victims and follow-up to complaints, monitoring of clergy, and removal of offenders when it is established that abuse has occurred. She lives and practices in Delray Beach, Fla.

  • Jason Berry

    Jason Berry, a Louisiana journalist, broke the first stories of sexual abuse by priests in 1985. He wrote Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children and, with Gerald Renner, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II.

  • J. Patout Burns

    J. Patout Burns is the Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University. He has studied the issue of clerical abuse.

  • Paul R. Dokecki

    Paul R. Dokecki is a professor in the department of human and organizational development of George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He wrote The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis: Reform and Renewal in the Catholic Community (Georgetown University Press, 2004).

In the Midwest

  • “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal”

    Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson are co-authors of a May 2010 book, “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal.” Their book aims for “a stronger balance” between media reports and what the authors say is the pope’s actual track record on clergy abuse. Bunson is a church historian and author and editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Erlandson is head of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, a leading Catholic publisher, and is the new head of the Catholic Press Association. Contact Erlandson or Bunson through the company’s publicist, Christine Valentine-Owsik of Valentine Communications.

  • Anna Salter

    Anna Salter is a consultant and author on sexual abuse, sex offenders and victimization. She also evaluates sex offenders for civil commitment proceedings and testifies as an expert witness in sexual abuse civil and criminal cases. Salter earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and public practice from Harvard University and served on the faculty of Dartmouth Medical School. She is the author of Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children. Salter lives in Madison, Wis.

  • Eli Coleman

    Eli Coleman is director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He is widely cited on issues related to sexual abuse by clergy.

    In the West

    • Sarah Brennan

      Sarah Brennan is clinical director of the Samaritan Counseling Center in Albuquerque and an expert on sexual abuse and clergy perpetrators. During the course of a decade, Brennan treated hundreds of priests at a center for clergy sex offenders in Jemez Springs, N.M., operated by a religious order, the Servants of the Paraclete. The center closed in 1994.

      Contact: 505-842-5300.
    • Robert Goodkind

      Robert Goodkind is a psychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, N.M. He also worked at the Paraclete center treating abusive priests in the 1980s and 1990s and is conversant with the pathology of the clergy abuser. 505-256-1021

    • Joseph Chinnici

      Joseph Chinnici is a Franciscan friar and professor of history at the Franciscan School of Theology, which is affiliated with the University of San Diego. He is the author of When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse and the Challenges of Leadership.

    • A.W. Richard Sipe

      A.W. Richard Sipe is a former priest who is also a psychotherapist and leading researcher on issues relating to clergy and sexuality. He is a widely cited commentator and the author or co-author of several books on the topic, including Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. He lives in La Jolla, Calif. Email through his website.

      Contact: 858-551-4370.
    • Karen A. McClintock

      Karen A. McClintock is a psychotherapist and United Methodist minister who wrote Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing. She is an expert on issues of sexual abuse of children by clergy and is a consultant to schools and churches on issues of sexuality. McClintock is an adjunct faculty member in the psychology department at Southern Oregon University.

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