Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Priest Abuse and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

It is a widely held misconception that the first manifestations of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests came about as a result of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation which was later turned into a movie. In reality, it happened two decades prior with the revelation that a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe had serially sexually abused children in his assignments as a Catholic priest.

Gauthe was ordained a Catholic priest in 1971 for the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana. Having been sexually molested himself at the age of 9, Gauthe began his predatory abuse of scores of children about the same age as he was when he was molested. The abuse was horrific and Gauthe terrorized the children into silence by telling some of them that if they ever revealed the abuse he (Gauthe) would kill their parents and he (Gauthe) would send them to hell.

Gauthe revealed later that he had felt no commitment to priestly service. He became a priest because it gave him unfettered access to young boys.

According to an article in USA Today, “Gauthe took advantage of that access and a pattern emerged. During a decade beginning in 1972, Gauthe moved from the Louisiana towns of Broussard to New Iberia to Abbeville to Henry, molesting boys in each location. The late Bishop Gerard Frey, then in charge of the Diocese of Lafayette and Gauthe’s supervisor, repeatedly was told of Gauthe’s crimes but responded only by moving the priest every time rumors began to spread.

Frey also told victims’ parents to have their sons go to confession and repent their participation in the sexual episodes.

Then, he made Gauthe chaplain of the Boy Scouts.

However, it all came to an end in 1984. That year, parents of Gauthe’s victims brought a number of suits against the diocese. At first, all the plaintiffs settled out of court. Then the late J. Minos Simon, a crusty, garrulous Lafayette lawyer, refused to settle.”

The civil sex abuse lawsuits compelled criminal charges and Ray Mouton, a wealthy, Louisiana-bred lawyer who had a reputation as a top criminal defense lawyer. Mouton admitted later that he took the case because he knew it would be high profile and the church had the deep pockets to provide for Gauthe’s defense. According to Mouton, he never imagined the case would forever change his life and send him to the depths of despair, alcoholism, and loss.

“When I decided to take that case, I destroyed my life, my family, my faith. In three years, I lost everything I held dear.”

Mouton had taken pride in the fact that he had seen it all when it came to the worst of human behavior-that is until he met Gilbert Gauthe. That wasn’t the only surprise or the most disappointing. Mouton discovered Gauthe wasn’t the only predatory offending priest. There were others and the bishop of the Diocese knew about it.

“I didn’t consider quitting. I couldn’t quit,” Mouton said. “I felt somebody had to do something, do all in their power, to protect innocent children from bishops who covered up crimes of demented criminal priests who belonged in prison.”

Mouton would join ranks with two Catholic priests similarly alarmed at what they believed was a burgeoning crisis within the Catholic Church, canon lawyer Thomas Doyle, OP and Fr. Michael Peterson, a trained psychologist who treated priests with addiction issues. The three worked on what would later be known as the Doyle-Mouton-Peterson Report (1985) at the behest of high ranking cardinals including Boston’s Bernard Law and Philadelphia’s Cardinal John Krol. (For a good history of this Report, referred to as the manual, click here.)

By October 1986, Mouton’s life and law practice was in a shambles. He had lost everything. “I felt then as I do now that every bishop who has covered up a clerical crime belongs in prison with the priest,” Mouton said. “I knew no one in the church had ever done anything about this or ever would do anything about it.

“I worked, battling the diocese, the American church and the Vatican until I literally burned myself up spiritually, mentally, and physically.”

Gauthe was in prison after pleading guilty to 11 counts of child molestation and sentenced to 20 years.

Mouton has become sober and lives a quiet life in southern France, forever changed by his encounter with incarnate evil.

For a free consultation, send us a message or call (212) 684-1880.

The Catholic Church and Sex Abuse – Historical Overview

In the 2006 book Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes, authors Thomas Doyle, Patrick Wall, and Richard Sipe write, “In some ways, this is a sad book. It demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt that the sexual abuse of minors by priests is not a recent or local phenomenon. Nor is the current crisis of clergy abuse just another pothole along the bumpy road in the history of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, this crime-and that is its proper name has been an open wound on the Body of Christ for as far back as records are kept.” (Preface)

The book demonstrates this contention through an examination of the Church’s penal and canonical code, papal documents, and letters from members of clergy and laity alike testifying to its existence. One may refer to the Didache written in 60 AD to find the earliest admonition against the sexual abuse of children. The authors, all of whom were or are Catholic priests, delineated scores of Church documents since the Church’s inception dealing with this problem.

Authors and social commentators, including those mentioned above, have sought to pinpoint various social, theological, disciplinary, and cultural reasons for this scourge but no one reason defines the true nature or cause of the abuse problem.

Whatever the reason, the most recent iteration of the problem did not end with Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana. The 1990s witnessed a similar scandal-this time in New England with the revelation of James Porter and his history of predatory abuse.

James Porter

After completing his priestly studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland in 1960, Porter was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts and assigned to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. Three years later, Porter is transferred because of complaints received about his behavior from his parents. In 1965, he is transferred again after the Diocese of Fall River receives similar complaints.

  • In 1967, he is taken out of his parish assignment and sent for treatment to Jemez Springs with the Paraclete Fathers who specialize in treating priests for psycho-sexual disorders, especially with children.
  • In 1969, after living in a halfway house for wayward priests, he is assigned to St. Philip Catholic Church in Minnesota. Less than a year later, a new abuse allegation surfaces and he is dismissed from the parish.
  • In 1971, he decides to enter another treatment center run by the Paracletes in St. Louis and decides to leave the priesthood. In 1974, he is laicized (removed from the priesthood) by the Catholic Church.
  • In 1976, Porter marries a 23-year-old woman from St. Paul Minnesota.

It isn’t until 1990 that Frank Fitzpatrick, a Rhode Island private investigator who had been an altar boy under Porter, confronts the former priest on the telephone about alleged sexual abuse. Fitzpatrick takes out advertisements in New England newspapers seeking other alleged victims of Porter’s abuse and in 1992 local Boston television station interviews Porter about the swirl of abuse allegations and Porter admits to abusing 50-100 children. In the ensuing weeks, 60 Porter survivors come forward with their own allegations.

It is not until October 1993 that Porter pleads guilty to sexually assaulting 28 young Catholics in parishes in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1960s and receives 18-20 prison sentence with the possibility of parole. Parole was consistently denied for several years. He completed his prison sentence in 2004 but was held until his death pending a civil commitment hearing. He died of cancer in a Boston hospital in 2005.

From the time of the Porter scandal in the early 1990s until the Boston Globe’s Spotlight’s initial articles appeared in January 2002, media coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church concentrated on seemingly isolated and disconnected incidents. It wasn’t until the Spotlight Team started putting the pieces of the horrific puzzle together was the full truth was revealed.

In those ensuing years, Fr. Marcel Maciel, the charismatic founder of the religious order Legionnaires of Christ, was accused of sexually abusing seminarians in his charge. The scandal was related to accusations that since the 1970s the prominent Mexican Roman Catholic priest had sexually abused many minors and fathered six children by three women. Described as a charismatic leader and the greatest fundraiser of the modern Roman Catholic Church, he was successful in recruiting seminarians at a time of declining priestly vocations. At the time, Maciel was the highest-ranking priest ever disciplined because of sexual abuse allegations. Yet, it wasn’t until 2006 that Maciel would face any Church recrimination for his abuse.

Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team Investigation and its Spread to Other Archdioceses and Dioceses

When the Boston Globe began its investigation into the sexual abuse of minors by Archdiocesan priests in 2001, there were skeptics even among Globe staff. In the end, the Spotlight Team published more than 600 articles and provided the public its first comprehensive glimpse into the nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Globe researchers and reporters did more to uncover the vast cover-up and conspiracy surrounding sexual abuse than any other major newspaper in the country. Perhaps more importantly, they made connections between the priest at the parish level and the authorities over them-the bishops and cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston.

They interviewed witnesses and survivors but recognized that the complete story was found in the Church’s documents, some of them stored in the Archdiocesan secret archives. As mandated by canon law, each diocese and archdiocese must maintain a secret archive where sensitive documents would be maintained. Access is limited to the bishop and those to whom he designates access, usually the chancellor or vicar general. The secret archives played a prominent role in the investigation of the Archdiocese of Boston’s abuse problem. They are analogous to former President Richard Nixon’s secret tapes.

As the steady stream of news articles about wayward priests were published by the Boston Globe, court battles intensified and the public relations battle became white hot. As head of the Catholic Church in Boston, Cardinal Law became a focus of media attention and courtroom inquiry. At the time of the Spotlight investigation, Law was arguably one of the most powerful cardinals in the world and wielded great influence over whom would become bishops in the future. However, in the end, the Boston Globe’s relentless coverage of the abuse crisis and Law’s mishandling of it proved to be his downfall. In December 2002, he resigned in disgrace and fled the country.

It was not only Cardinal Law who mishandled the priest abuse crisis. Former Cardinal Humberto Medeiros played a significant role in the transfer of abusive priests and the cover-up of the scandal. When the Archdiocese of Boston was forced to make public documents related to abuse and the transfer of priests, the documents revealed that Law, Medeiros, and the auxiliary bishops knew about priests abusing children and chose to cover it up rather than go to the authorities. As in Watergate, it was the cover-up that led to the demise of many influential and top level clerics in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Even bishops who had long since left the Archdiocese of Boston were compelled to testify in court. In 2002, Bishop Thomas Daily, then Bishop of Brooklyn, was questioned by lawyers about what he knew and when he knew it concerning abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

In the summer of 2003, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly convened a grand jury to investigate the crisis in the Archdiocese. Bishop Robert Banks was the bishop of Green Bay that summer but was called to testify since he had spent six years as Cardinal Law’s auxiliary bishop. The grand jury concluded the following

  • Failed to adequately investigate or direct investigations in clergy abuse cases.
  • Clearly preferred to keep priests who sexually abused children in pastoral ministry and generally refrained from restricting their duties even in the face of conflicting medical opinions regarding the appropriateness of continuing in ministerial duties.
  • Failed to report allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children to law enforcement or seek advice from public authorities in handling such investigations.

The grand jury report notes Banks “was not candid” with police during interviews in the criminal investigation of former priest John Geoghan, one of the first priests investigated by the Globe and one of the most notorious serial pedophile in the Archdiocese. In February 2002, Geoghan was sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison for molesting a 10-year-old boy.

According to the report, Banks failed in 1989 to tell police investigating another abuse allegation against Geoghan that he was aware of past allegations against Geoghan, that Geoghan had admitted sexually abusing children and that a psychiatrist had recommended that the archdiocese “better clip his wings before there is an explosion.”

In another case, the report said Banks argued against sending a priest convicted of sexually assaulting a child to prison.

The grand jury said Banks did not tell Massachusetts court officials that Father Eugene O’Sullivan had abused other children. O’Sullivan was subsequently sentenced to five years probation and sent by the archdiocese to Canada for treatment. Following treatment Banks urged the transfer of O’Sullivan to a New Jersey parish, albeit with a warning to O’Sullivan’s new bosses of his past record, but without recommending the priest’s contact with children be limited.

“In this instance, the Archdiocese was willing to risk O’Sullivan sexually abusing a child in another diocese even though he had been convicted of sexually abusing a child in the Archdiocese,” the grand jury report said.

The investigation in the Archdiocese of Boston led to criminal charges and a slew of civil priest abuse lawsuits against the Archdiocese. It also led to other archdioceses and dioceses being investigated by attorneys general in such places as Los Angeles, Manchester, Rockville Centre, New York, and Philadelphia.

If you would like to speak with our sexual abuse and assault lawyers in New York, complete our contact form or call (212) 684-1880 to schedule a free consultation with our legal team.