The Four Waves of the U.S. Catholic Abuse Crisis

Where We Are

For many of us, the Catholic Church is our extended family and the center of our daily lives: the community within which we celebrate the sacraments, worship God, teach our children, serve the poor, cheer our kids’ CYO teams, build lifelong friendships, and so much more.

Given that context, it is no surprise that over these past months American Catholics have been devastated and angered by revelations regarding sexual abuse and abuse of power in our Church. As we think about how to move forward, I would like to give an overview of our current moment; a brief review of how we got here; and finally, a description of what might lie ahead.
This latest iteration of the clerical abuse crisis began with revelations regarding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abuse of children and predation on seminarians as he was protected by a culture of clericalism that looked the other way at every turn.

It soon moved on to the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and its horrific accounting of decades of sexual abuse and cover-up involving over 1,000 potential victims and 300 potential abuser priests—and that was just in six dioceses in one state. That report alleged that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C., long seen as a leader on these issues, had himself permitted accused priests to be reassigned, and this October Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report as well as the McCarrick revelations, over a dozen U.S. states as well as the U.S. Department of Justice are seeking records and have launched investigations into Catholic dioceses, with many more sure to follow.

These revelations helped American Catholics gain awareness of so many other instances when Church leaders failed in their most basic duty to protect the vulnerable—not just in the United States, but in places like Chile, Ireland, Germany, Australia, India, and many others.

Into this volatile context, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò launched several letters raising questions about who knew what and when, regarding Cardinal McCarrick, all amid unsupported, scattershot accusations, allegations of conspiracy, and a call for Pope Francis’s resignation, using the burgeoning abuse crisis as a vehicle to advance his own agendas.

More recently we heard reports out of Buffalo regarding Bishop Malone’s failure to remove abusive priests from ministry and efforts to cover up the scope of abuse in his diocese, as well as a major joint investigation by the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer, which found that more than 130 U.S. bishops have been accused of failing to respond adequately to clerical sexual misconduct—50 of them after the adoption of the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Finally, we saw a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that opened with an announcement that the Vatican had determined that the proposals under discussion by the U.S. bishops, which the Holy See had received only days earlier, had a number of problems that meant they could not be put to a vote. Instead, the U.S. bishops discussed those proposals and others, but decisions on them were held in abeyance until after the upcoming February 2019 Vatican meeting of all episcopal conference presidents from around the world so that further action could be informed by listening to the experiences of these bishops from different cultures and backgrounds.

In reaction to this turn of events, Cardinal Cupich, a member of the organizing committee for the February Vatican meeting, noted that “It is clear that the Holy See recognizes the urgency of this issue, and is placing great importance on the February meeting, understanding that the present crisis is not limited to one or a few countries, but that it is a watershed moment for the universal Church.”

The bishops gathered in Baltimore had some fruitful discussions but came to no real conclusions, leaving many to wonder why so many bishops seemed more concerned with their rights and privileges than with their responsibilities, and why, despite much talk of the need for fraternal correction, several bishops who covered up clerical sexual abuse and denied justice to victims attended the meeting and even spoke to the assembly.

Lay American Catholics arrive at this moment with anguish in our hearts for the victims and survivors of sexual abuse, and anger at our leaders, who we trusted to prevent these horrific crimes, and expected to live by the truths of our faith. The crisis has eroded trust in our bishops and damaged their credibility as moral leaders.

As we try to think through a path forward in response to this crisis, answers are beginning to coalesce around leadership from faithful, engaged laity, working together with bishops, priests, and religious, to:

  • protect children and vulnerable adults;

  • secure justice and healing for survivors;

  • provide real accountability for bishops and genuine transparency regarding cases of abuse and cover-up, including zero tolerance of abuse; and

  • reform the clerical culture so that abuse and its cover-up can never happen again.

Of course, for these reforms to take hold, they cannot only be grounded in procedural efforts—commissions, protocols, training sessions, and the like—however well-intentioned. These concrete, practical reforms, while right and necessary, must be rooted in a renewed sense of holiness and mission, a revitalized understanding of the radical claims that the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes on us and of what it means to walk together as a Church on a path forward.

As Pope Francis said in his Letter to the People of God following the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, when it comes to responding to this crisis, we cannot create “projects . . . and structures without roots, without memory, without faces” but instead must “halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice . . . to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.”

We all seek to get to a place of “never again,” a place we trusted that Church leaders had taken us. I think it is clear to all of us that we are not there, not by a long shot.

To give some background for thinking about a path forward, it is helpful to briefly review the history of the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. and the Church’s attempts to respond to it, from the 1980’s to our current moment.

How We Got Here

The clerical abuse crisis in the Catholic Church simmered for decades, exploding in the United States in 2002, and has now re-emerged in 2018 on a global scale.

Litigation regarding abuse in the U.S. goes back to the nineteenth century, and civil claims were settled throughout the twentieth. But they were seen as isolated cases and did not get a great deal of attention. Some have divided the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. into three waves, and after this summer we can add a fourth.

The first wave, from 1984-1993 or so, began with the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana, a predatory pedophile who molested at least 37 boys in 4 different parishes. His case touched off a wave of cases and drew national attention, causing some dioceses to begin to develop policies for responding to abuse.

During this time period, the U.S. bishops, the Bishops’ conference, and the Vatican began to develop and strengthen anti-abuse policies.

The second wave went from 1992-2001, with the case of Father James Porter in Fall River, Massachusetts, who abused over 100 boys and girls in Massachusetts parishes in the 1960’s, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. During this time the U.S. Bishops’ conference drew up a statement of general principles to guide responses to allegations of abuse, which Peter Steinfels paraphrased as:

Respond to allegations promptly; immediately suspend anyone reasonably suspected while proceeding with an investigation and making use of "appropriate medical evaluation and intervention:" comply with civil law and cooperate with criminal investigations; reach out to victims; and deal with the issue "as openly as possible.”

1991-92 was a watershed moment, in large part due to the efforts of Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who was the first to put into place credible diocesan policies against clerical sexual abuse. In 1991 Cardinal Bernardin assembled a committee that, again according to Steinfels:

Not only culled forty years of diocesan records to identify potential abusers and remove those still active, but recommended a new model for handling accusations, a lay-dominated committee (including a victim or victim’s relative), a non-clerical gatekeeper, and a publicized hotline. The Chicago model was imitated or at least adapted elsewhere.

Chicago was also the first diocese to establish an Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.

The third wave lasted from 2002-2008, beginning with the case of Father John Geoghan in Boston and the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series, which showed the full extent of sexual abuse of children by clergy in Boston, as well as the cover-up by Cardinal Law and the Boston hierarchy.

By 2004, the Globe had written some 800 articles on the scandal, “Cardinal Law had resigned, 150 priests in Boston stood accused of sexual abuse, and more than 500 victims had filed abuse claims.” The investigative series received widespread national attention.

In the wake of this scandal, the Vatican instructed the U.S. Church to develop binding laws to protect children, leading to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted in Dallas in June 2002, widely known as the Dallas Charter, along with the Essential Norms for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. The USCCB commissioned the John Jay report on the nature and scope of the sexual abuse of minors, and the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People began its work.

After the Charter, dioceses across the country put in place much more robust policies, most importantly including zero tolerance policies regarding of the sexual abuse of minors. The Charter required all dioceses to:

  • Heal and promote reconciliation of victims/survivors and their families;

  • Make prompt and effective response to abuse allegations;

  • Cooperate with civil authorities;

  • Discipline offenders;

  • Create a safe environment for children and young people through training and screening;

  • Provide means of accountability for the future and ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board (Archdiocese of Chicago).

As we learned, the main hole in the Dallas Charter was that it failed to provide an effective mechanism to hold bishops accountable for abuse and its cover-up.

And, as described earlier, we just began a fourth wave of the clerical abuse crisis in 2018, beginning with the revelations concerning Cardinal McCarrick, moving on to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the acceptance of Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation, and a U.S. bishops’ meeting that began with a promise to unite around real solutions, only to end with little to show except discussion of a number of draft proposals.

While 2002 was about the behavior of priests, 2018 is about the behavior of bishops, and the need for genuine responsiveness, transparency, and accountability regarding their actions. Even when the underlying abuse occurred decades ago, the laity seek accountability and consequences for leaders who neglected, enabled, or covered up abuse as they sought to protect the institution rather than the faithful. Their participation in a culture of destructive clericalism far too often engaged in cover-up of horrific crimes against those most deserving of protection and care.

Finding a Path Forward

Lay Catholics are looking for answers. We question how those who engaged in or covered up abuse rose through the hierarchy, with denial, concealment, and wrongful behavior continuing year after year.

Defensive answers—references to bad advice or lack of knowledge, or statements that reform has already taken place—do not effectively respond to the fundamental questions posed by the laity: How could this happen? Why did Catholic leaders try to protect the institution rather than the vulnerable? When will we have a full accounting of the facts regarding these crimes and their cover-up? And when will we hold people accountable for these failures?

This is not a communications problem. It is not a failure of “messaging,” whatever that means. It is not the fault of the secular media, without whom we would not know the full scope of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up.

It is a substantive problem rooted in grave moral failure, and a cultural problem rooted in clericalism.

Catholics are angry and anguished. They struggle to pass their Catholic faith to their children and grandchildren, who unsurprisingly see in these grave moral failures an institution that has lost much of its credibility and moral authority. The whole Church did not fail, but the whole Church needs to work together to find a way to effectively address this crisis so as to reform and renew itself and begin to heal.

So where do things stand now?

Any number of lay efforts are springing up to respond to this crisis, including conversations like the one at Lumen Christi where this paper was first delivered, or those at our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, where we held three dialogues in recent months on the human, moral, and spiritual costs of the clerical sexual abuse crisis to standing-room only crowds of engaged, informed audiences ready to help our Church move forward. Groups like the Leadership Roundtable and others are helping bring the expertise of laypeople to the table as resources for the institutional Church as it seeks to develop concrete accountability measures.

At the same time, lay leadership is not a panacea. Advice from laypeople—lawyers, psychologists, and others—led too many bishops to shuffle abusive priests around and return them to ministry. And some lay initiatives can be misguided, such as recent reports of well-funded efforts to promote amateur investigations that dangerously import the methods of political opposition-research campaigns into our communion of faith.

Respected professional journalists are continuing to pursue these important stories, and when it comes to the media, the real story is that reporters have by and large done Catholics an important service whose value should not be discounted.

In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, there are now over a dozen state investigations into various dioceses, with many more sure to come. There are any number of ongoing civil suits, including one recently filed against the USCCB. And federal prosecutors have opened their own investigation, signaling the potential for litigation with significant national impact.

As for efforts within the Church, four dioceses are conducting investigations into former Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior, and the Vatican has launched its own investigation into Cardinal McCarrick as well.

Finally, all are eager for the February 21-24 meeting of episcopal conference presidents at the Vatican. We can hope that the assembled bishops will work together to embrace their responsibility as bishops, and will focus on achieving concrete steps towards accountability for prelates and transparency in general. The Vatican has signaled that the bishops will engage with victim-survivors and consider the role of laity in securing the protection of children and justice for victim-survivors. The meeting’s organizers have also indicated that the assembled bishops will begin considering structural reforms of the Church to root out the culture of clericalism that helped enable this awful abuse.

We are all anguished and angry, but it is important to keep expectations in check for this important meeting. While we should look for concrete outcomes, it is clear that we face major challenges that require broader changes than can be expected to result from just one gathering. As veteran religion journalist Kenneth Woodward has noted, “The scandals of 2018 ought to be seen as spurs to thoughtful action, not occasions for fruitless displays of anger, shock, shame, and despair.”


Our path forward here is uncertain, but we can identify some necessary elements:

  • First and foremost, it should be rooted in our mission as Catholics to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ together.

  • Second, faithful, responsible, engaged lay leadership is key to this effort. As Pope Francis said this summer in the depths of this crisis, “every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.”

  • Third, in moving forward, some basic principles should stay front and center:

    • put justice and healing for victim-survivors first;

    • ensure that the vulnerable are protected;

    • rebuild institutional integrity through efforts towards genuine accountability and real transparency, including zero tolerance for abuse; and

    • reform the clerical culture so that abuse and its cover-up cannot happen again.

In pursuing reform in the justifiably heated context surrounding these efforts, we should also keep close to our hearts the words of Cardinal Avery Dulles regarding true and false reform, in which he noted that “a reform that is Catholic in spirit will seek to maintain communion with the whole body of the Church and will avoid anything savoring of schism or factionalism.”

To that end, let us remember that around this country and the world right now, every day the sacraments are being celebrated in Catholic churches; children are being taught in Catholic schools; the hungry are being fed through Catholic social service ministries; and the sick are being cared for in Catholic hospitals.

That is our mission as Catholics, and focusing on that mission—love of God and love of neighbor, celebrating the sacraments and serving those in need—will keep us together, reminding us that we are the Church; that we are all in this together; that we need to stay and renew and rebuild. It is up to us.

So, even as I am sick at heart by this evil and awfulness and venality, when I pray the Creed I still believe every line of it to be true. I know that those truths, and the love in which they are rooted, unite us as one family. Most of all, I cannot help but stand with Peter, saying “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I hope that is true of you all too.

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as an address at a University of Chicago The Catholic Church in Crisis panel discussion hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute.

Featured Image: Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Kim Daniels

Kim Daniels is the Associate Director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.

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