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The Learning Curve


Clerical abuse had been recognized for centuries as a grievous but fortunately uncommon failing. In previous ages, when it came to light Church leaders were inclined to deal with it openly and to punish abusers severely.

Chapter 11: The Learning Curve (pages 137-143)


Today it is commonplace to read that the clerical sex-abuse scandal first erupted in Boston in early 2002. Not so. Church insiders had been aware of the simmering scandal for at least fifteen years. Despite the best efforts of Church officials to keep the story quiet, sensational headlines had begun to appear in the national media by the early 1990s. What came to light in 2002 was the second scandal: the public exposure of the American bishops' negligence.

Some observers, anxious to defend the bishops, have suggested that sexual abuse by Catholic priests was rarely known, and still more rarely understood, before the dawn of the twenty-first century. The evidence clearly shows otherwise. But the evidence is equally unkind to another suggestion, often put forward by analysts with an animus against the Church: that priestly sexual abuse has been a constant feature of Catholic history, which has only come to light in our time thanks to the crusading efforts of investigative reporters. The exhaustive studies commissioned by the US bishops since 2002 show a sharp, sudden rise in the incidence of abuse that began in the 1960s, crested in the 1970s, and had already begun to ebb before the phenomenon came to public notice.

Before that alarming spike, clerical abuse had been recognized for centuries as a grievous but fortunately uncommon failing. When the problem did occasionally flare up and capture public attention, Church leaders were inclined to deal with it openly. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council reminded bishops of their duty to punish abusers severely. "Prelates who dare support such in their iniquities," the Council declared, "shall be subject to a like punishment."

In 1568 Pope Pius V lamented that the papal states had been "polluted" by sexual abuse. To curtail this "detestable monstrosity," he ruled that any priest found guilty of sexual abuse should be stripped of his clerical status and privilege and handed over to the secular courts. The secular courts were likely to punish their offenses by the death penalty: a prospect that did not worry the Pontiff at all. On the contrary Pius V today known to Catholics as Saint Pius V said that severe punishment would send a useful message to other clerics who might be tempted to prey on children. He calmly observed that "whoever does not abhor the ruination of the soul, the avenging secular sword of civil law will certainly deter."

That stern approach was long gone by the twentieth century, but the gravity of sexual abuse was still fully recognized. In 1947 a Boston native, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, founded the Servants of the Paraclete to work with priests suffering from a variety of psychological and behavioral problems. Based on his experience with troubled clerics, he was soon warning bishops that pedophile priests, unlike recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, should not be returned to active ministry. "As a class," he wrote, "they expect to bound back like tennis balls on the court of priestly activity." But genuine rehabilitation and reform were unusual, he reported; these predators were likely to molest children again. "Hence, leaving them on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese is contributing to scandal or at least to the approximate danger of scandal."

Father Fitzgerald recognized that bishops would be likely to show paternal concern for the priests accused of molesting children. He argued, however, that "charity to the Mystical Body should take precedence over charity to the individual." A priest who molested children, he said, should be confined to a monastery for the rest of his life, or dismissed from the ranks of the clergy.

In 1568 Pope Pius V lamented that the papal states had been "polluted" by sexual abuse. To curtail this "detestable monstrosity," he ruled that any priest found guilty of sexual abuse should be stripped of his clerical status and privilege and handed over to the secular courts.

The clear-eyed realism of that approach was lost during the 1960s. It was discarded, along with so many other pieces of traditional Catholic wisdom, in the cultural revolution that followed Vatican II. A new generation of Church leaders, impatient with discipline and suspicious of restrictions, could not accept the idea that some human failings are irreformable. Rather than confining pedophile priests to monasteries, bishops began sending them to new treatment centers, where under the guidance of counselors steeped in secular psychological theories they would be encouraged to gain a better understanding of their sexual impulses, and then regularly returned to parish work. Even the Servants of the Paraclete adopted this gentler approach, rejecting the advice of their founder.

For generations bishops had been alert for signs of a breakdown in ascetic discipline among their priests. Now they relaxed their vigilance on that score, and concentrated instead on the physical and emotional welfare of their clergy. It is telling that in 1969, when US bishops perceived a growing problem among American priests, the episcopal conference commissioned a study not of priestly zeal or priestly spirituality, but of priestly morale. The author of that study, the ex-priest Eugene Kennedy, concluded in 1972 that American priests were subjected to an excess of discipline, which prevented them from achieving full psychological maturity. Kennedy, a trained psychologist, had supervised interviews with hundreds of priests, looking for signs of trouble. Yet although his research was conducted during the years when the incidence of sexual abuse was hitting an all-time high, he did not mention the problem in his final report. Indeed Kennedy wrote: "There is little indication that American priests would exercise freedom in any impulsive or destructive way."

But priests were using their new freedoms in destructive ways. The studies commissioned by the US bishops three decades later revealed a three-fold increase in the reports of sexual abuse by priests during the 1960s. That number continued to climb, the studies show, through the 1970s. By the early 1980s, diocesan chanceries were coping with the consequences of this epidemic.

In most cases diocesan officials were successful in keeping complaints quiet. Some aggrieved families were persuaded to keep their complaints private in order to prevent public scandal. Others were silenced just as effectively with out-of-court legal settlements in which all records were sealed and all parties bound to secrecy. But these defensive levees could not hold up forever against a flood of angry complaints.

The first splash of public attention came with the case of Gilbert Gauthe, a Lousiania priest who was convicted in 1985 of molesting eleven boys. A talented journalist, Jason Berry, was living in the region where Gauthe had been assigned, and because he was a Catholic, Berry took a special interest in the case. In May 1985, he published a thorough account in The Times of Acadiana. For the first time, the American public had a glimpse into the seedy world of a priest-molester.

Complaints about Gauthe's involvement with children began to arise soon after his priestly ordination in 1971. At first the young priest was able to convince angry parents that he could change his behavior, and the parents agreed to keep his indiscretions hidden from diocesan officials. But by 1974 there were new complaints, and Bishop Gerard Frey of the Lafayette diocese ordered him into therapy. Returning from a leave of absence, Father Gauthe was, unbelievably, appointed diocesan chaplain for the Boy Scouts, and given a new parish assignment, enabling him to resume his pattern of abuse. By 1980, when a new flurry of complaints finally prodded Bishop Frey to suspend him from active ministry, Gauthe had molested dozens of boys; no one knows the exact number, although the disgraced priest himself confessed to abusing thirty-seven youngsters. Writing about the case in The Times of Acadiana, Jason Berry provide a chilling picture of this priest's habits:


Gauthe committed sodomy in early hours before Mass, introduced oral sex in the confessional, in the sacristy, and he showed his young victims videotaped pornography. He took hundreds of instant snapshots, which he claims to have destroyed, and instigated sex games.

In his ground-breaking coverage of the case Berry noticed several important implications of the scandal. First and foremost, he recognized the devastating effects that sexual abuse had on the young victims. They were permanently scarred by the experience, he reported particularly because their innocence was violated by someone they had trusted, someone they saw as a figure of moral leadership. Many abuse victims, Berry wrote, were "walking time bombs ticking."

Very early in his research efforts, Berry discovered that Church officials were more interested in guarding their own interests than in helping the victims or in protecting other young people who might become victims in the future. The Lafayette diocese had been slow to respond to the first complaints, but eager to suppress any hint of publicity. Even when the Gauthe case became public knowledge, Bishop Frey declined an interview request, with his lawyer explaining: "A press interview on the matters in litigation could result in the Church and its officials being denied insurance coverage." No doubt that explanation was accurate from a legal perspective, but the words did not quite match what a loyal Catholic might have expected from his spiritual father at a time of crisis within the Church. The bishop's response throughout the crisis was exclusively defensive, never pastoral.

And yet, despite (or because of) that defensive approach, the Lafayette diocese had not been able to avoid heavy financial losses. "Beyond the criminal indictment, the Lafayette diocese and a number of insurance companies have, in out-of-court settlements, already agreed to payments of at least $4.2 million to families of nine of Gauthe's victims in Vermilion parish," Berry wrote. "Eleven additional suits have been filed by other victims for claims of approximately $ 114 million. But these claims represent only a minority of victims."

As he moved beyond the Gauthe case, expanding his research into clerical abuse for his book Lead Us Not into Temptation, Berry slowly uncovered a disturbing pattern in the way Church leaders responded to complaints of sexual abuse. The Gauthe case, he learned, was far from unique. Through most of the 1980s diocesan officials refused to grapple with the root causes of the problem directly, instead treating each incident on an ad hoc basis. Time after time, bishops often following the advice of their lawyers refused to acknowledge that a problem existed. Priests were shifted from one parish to another and shuttled from treatment centers to new assignments to escape adverse attention.

The report warned that some new approach was necessary, because, as the three authors wrote: "Recidivism is so high with pedophilia and exhibitionism that all controlled studies have shown that traditional outpatient psychiatric or psychological models alone do not work."

While the bishops concentrated on damage control, Berry found an oddly mixed triumvirate pressing for a concerted national effort to address the sex-abuse problem. Father Thomas Doyle, OP, was a canon lawyer assigned to the office of the apostolic nuncio in Washington. Ray Mouton was a Louisiana lawyer who had been shocked by what he learned after he naively agreed to defend Gauthe in court. Father Michael Peterson was a psychiatrist, specializing in the treatment of troubled clerics, who was dying of AIDS as the scandal unfolded.

Together the three men pushed the US bishops to recognize the growing problem and set up consistent policies to handle the legal, psychological, and pastoral implications. Encouraged by a few influential prelates, they prepared a hundred-page study of the issue, hoping that it would be discussed at the 1985 meeting of the bishops' conference and adopted as a national policy. The report warned that some new approach was necessary, because, as the three authors wrote: "Recidivism is so high with pedophilia and exhibitionism that all controlled studies have shown that traditional outpatient psychiatric or psychological models alone do not work."

Father Doyle later reported that he thought he had enlisted the help of Cardinal Bernard Law, who chaired the bishops' committee on Research and Pastoral Practices, to push for adoption of a national policy. Evidently Doyle was mistaken, because the push for adoption never came; the bishops declined to consider the document. Years later many American bishops defended themselves against charges of negligence by saying that they did not understand the nature of sexual abuse and did not have proper policies to deal with the problem. But in 1985, explaining their decision to shelve the Peterson/Dolye/Mouton proposal, the US bishops' conference was taking a very different line. They did not need the experts' guidance, the bishops said, because they already understood the issue and adequate policies were already in place. . . .



Philip F. Lawler. "excerpt from Chapter 11: The Learning Curve." from The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. (New York: Encounter Books, 2008), 137-143.

Excerpted by permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher or author.

| Encounter Books | Hardcover | 2008 | $25.95 | ISBN-1594032114

The Author

lawler63Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN) and the director of Catholic Culture. He attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He is the author of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a PandemicThe Smoke of Satan, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture and  A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future. He is the editor of When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories of the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok.

Copyright © 2008 Philip F. Lawler
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