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Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

By Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP

The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church did not begin with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation of the Archdiocese of Boston in January 2002.  However, that was the moment when the media and the general public began to recognize a pattern of sexual abuse of children and the Catholic Church’s inept and corrupt manner in which it handled abusive priests. The media attention surrounding the Archdiocese of Boston and other archdioceses and dioceses lasted a few years and then died down until the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published in August 2018.  The Report, coupled with serious sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, brought the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal to a new crisis point. Outraged by the Report and the allegations against the powerful Washington DC cardinal, led many states to change their civil and criminal laws concerning the statute of limitations concerning these cases. We will write more about McCarrick later.

The new millennium was not the first time that reports of serious and serial sexual predation by Catholic priests was made known.  Perhaps the most infamous concerned Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana.  Gauthe served as a Catholic priest from 1972 until 1983 and admitted to molesting 37 children during his tenure as a Catholic priest.  He was arrested and was sentenced to a prison term of 20 years but released after serving 10 years. After being released from prison, Gauthe moved to Texas where he was charged with abusing a 3-year-old boy. He received probation in 1997 after pleading guilty to injuring the child and was later jailed in Galveston County between 2008 and 2010 for violating the Texas sex registry requirements. 

Three men were instrumental in the Gauthe saga-two Catholic priests and a lawyer, all of whom warned the Catholic Church that Gauthe was the tip of the iceberg. Fr. Thomas Doyle, OP, a renowned canon lawyer, Fr. Michael Peterson, and Attorney Roy Mouton were so troubled by what they had discovered during and after the Gauthe case, they wrote what came to be known as The Doyle-Peterson-Mouton report.  This 92-page report was given to the US bishops for their consideration at their annual meeting in 1985. However, the Report’s findings were completely ignored by the US bishops. 

The next major event in the sexual abuse crisis of the Catholic Church involved a Massachusetts priest, Fr. James Porter who molested more than 100 children over a three-decade reign of terror. It was until the 1990’s that his dark past became public.  The Diocese of Fall River knew that he was sexually abusing children as early as 1960. 

Porter was assigned to St. Mary’s parochial grammar school in North Attleboro, Massachusetts in April 1960 and put in charge of the altar boys. Porter gained a reputation there as a child molester, but no action was taken against him by the Catholic Church until 1963, by which time at least four parents had complained to his superiors about his inappropriate behavior. Rather than contact the police, however, Church officials moved Porter to a parish in Fall River, where further complaints about his behavior surfaced. In the early 1960s, Porter abused more than 60 North Attleboro children, and nearly 100 in southeastern Massachusetts.

In 1964, Porter was arrested for molesting a 13-year-old boy and sent to a mental institution for 13 months. Once released, he was quickly reassigned to another parish, the first of many such reassignments over the years. He was shuffled into two more parishes before more accusations piled up and he was hospitalized again in 1967, this time to a hospital run by fellow priests who practiced holistic psychotherapy upon its patients, many of whom were clergy members suffering from psychological problems. Porter’s “problem” was not unique among the hospital’s patients; two of them were later imprisoned for abusing, between them, hundreds of children.

Porter was released after a few months, once again declared cured, and given probationary assignments in parishes in Texas, New Mexico, and Minnesota, all of which included access to children. Complaints surfaced by the dozen against Porter, but none of them resulted in disciplinary action beyond his being moved from post to post.

In 1973, Porter wrote a letter to Pope Paul VI requesting to be released from the priesthood, in which he admitted molesting children across five states. The Pope granted his request and, in 1974, Porter gave up his collar. He married and eventually settled in Minnesota. He and his wife had four children. Following Porter’s arrest years later, his family revealed that he was often emotionally and physically abusive toward them; Porter’s son Sean also told authorities that his father had sexually abused him.

In spite of Porter’s admission to the Pope that he was molesting children, the Pope never contacted the civil authorities.  He was removed from the priesthood quietly and was allowed to continue molesting children because the Pope did not contact any law enforcement about what he knew about serious criminal behavior.

The Catholic Church’s response to the Gauthe and Porter cases was particularly crude and unsympathetic toward the survivors of sexual abuse.  Anyone who came forward with allegations against a Catholic priest was considered an enemy of the Church and accused of sin because they had the audacity to speak publicly about a priest. 

The Catholic Church’s response to these early warning signs of a systemic problem consisted of feigning ignorance and attacking the survivors.  The bishops claimed that they relied on psychological experts for recommendations concerning the abusive priests and had no idea of the impact of childhood sexual abuse. They also did everything in their power to cover-up for the priests and save the Church from scandal. Their own files, which are kept meticulously, are evidence of this.  In one particular case that made it to trial, the bishop of the diocese wrote to the offending priest that he would destroy the damning psychological reports that considered him a threat to children!

In the mid-1980’s, an auxiliary bishop of Cleveland spoke to his fellow bishops about the crisis and told them to send incriminating documents in their possession to the nunciature in Washington DC since the nunciature had diplomatic immunity!

Documents are the Key

The Catholic Church’s own documents are integral in these sexual abuse cases. Files are kept and maintained scrupulously by church officials.  However, the documents are only accessible by court order or through the natural discovery process after a sexual abuse lawsuit has been filed.  Each archdiocese and diocese is mandated by canon law (church law) to maintain a secret archive where sensitive documents are to be kept and maintained.  Canon law stipulates in great detail how these files are to be maintained and who may have access to them. 

Approximately ten years ago, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles became embroiled in a legal fight over such documents.  Mahony maintained these files were privileged communications between his priests and himself and therefore not accessible to the public.  After a long legal battle, Mahony lost.  The LA Times has published those documents which provides an excellent glimpse into the inner workings of the Catholic Church. 

Such documents may be found in every archdiocese and diocese in the country.  They are a treasure trove of corruption, deceit, criminality, and cover-up.  They are the ecclesiastical (church) equivalent to the Watergate tapes and they are essential for priest abuse lawyers to prosecute the Church. 

Returning to McCarrick

Theodore McCarrick was ordained for the Archdiocese of New York in 1958 and quickly became a rising star due to his charismatic personality.  He became an auxiliary bishop in New York in 1977 and later served in the Diocese of Metuchen, the Archdiocese of Newark and finally as Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC. 

McCarrick had acute political skills and easily ingratiated himself with his superiors in the Church as well as politicians and elected officials.  He served presidents as well as popes in diplomatic capacities around the world, all the while there were whispers of his other life as “Uncle Ted”. Uncle Ted was a predator who preyed on young boys, the majority of whom were studying for the priesthood (not unlike the man who ordained him a priest Cardinal Francis Spellman).  In spite of swirling rumors about his double life and even reports to Rome about his behavior, nothing was done.  He was considered too important to the mission of the Church. 

Father Boniface Ramsey complained to the Vatican about McCarrick’s behavior but it fell on deaf ears. When the scandal finally broke in the summer of 2018, another cardinal, McCarrick’s successor in Washington, claimed ignorance. McCarrick’s downfall would prove to be Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s downfall as well. He resigned in disgrace a few months later. 

Web of Lies, Deceit, and the Good ‘Ol Boys Network

Sexual abuse of children by an institution such as the Catholic Church doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Like predatory spiders, there is a web of power, corruption, and deviancy.  Rod Dreher, a disaffected former Catholic wrote extensively about this.  Dreher’s conclusion, drawing from many sources, offers a chilling perspective. Dreher believes that there is a “culture of abuse” or what he terms a family tree of sexual abuse. Cardinal Spellman, an alleged philanderer, ordained McCarrick and mentored him. Wuerl was tutored by Cardinal John Wright, the former bishop of Worcester, Pittsburgh, and Cardinal Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy.  Allegations have been lodged against every one of them.   

The power and prestige that was the Catholic hierarchy led to this sexual abuse crisis.  It was a secret culture that allowed the predation of young children for the amusement of powerful and influential men. 

As the power and prestige of the Catholic Church dwindles, the truth of what has transpired is finally being exposed. The lawyers at Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP have the experience and the knowledge to handle these cases. We have confronted and sued the powerful and influential in the Catholic Church and in society, Jeffrey Weinstein for example. If you or a loved one have been sexually abused by a Catholic priest call us today for a free, confidential evaluation of your case.

Disclaimer-the Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo Plotkin & Hellman LLP Firm does not intend to convey that the sex abuse crisis involves every Catholic priest, but rather a minority of priests. 

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