The furor over ex-priest and convicted sex abuser John Geoghan ignited the crisis now sweeping over the nation’s Roman Catholic dioceses, but his case was far from the first molestation scandal to hit the church in America. New charges have sprung up constantly over the past 18 years. During that time, at least 1,500 U.S. priests have faced public accusations, victims’ lawyer Sylvia Demarest estimates. There are currently 46,000 priests in the United States.
The issue first drew attention in 1984, with the civil and criminal charges filed against the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe of the Lafayette, La., diocese.
The priest pleaded guilty to molesting 11 boys, admitted victimizing dozens more, and the local scandal widened. Nineteen other priests were eventually accused of abuse, and the diocese negotiated costly out-of-court settlements with victims.
Similar reports, meanwhile, were emerging in other states. Journalist Jason Berry wrote a nationwide survey of the situation in 1985 for the National Catholic Reporter, drawing the secular media’s attention to the problem.
Much like commentary in the wake of the Geoghan case in Boston, the liberal newsweekly editorialized that bishops too often ignored complaints, or moved molesters from parish to parish. “Only legal threats and lawsuits seem capable of provoking some local bishops into taking firm actions,” the paper said.
Simultaneously, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer for the Vatican embassy in Washington, was helping to write a confidential memo for the nation’s Catholic bishops.
The memo cited press accounts of 30 cases with 100 victims, warned that failure to report suspicions to prosecutors was often a crime, and projected a cost to the church of $1 billion over the coming decade.
Four years later, Hawaii’s Joseph Ferrario became the first U.S. bishop accused of molestation. His accuser filed a suit, but a court dismissed it as too late. Ferrario, who denied the charges, retired early in 1993.
Events in the early 1990s caused the biggest public outcry since 1985.
Denied a molesting charge from one youth
They began with the resignation of the celebrated leader of Covenant House for teen runaways, the Rev. Bruce Ritter. He had denied a molesting charge from one youth, but others stepped forward to accuse him and the Covenant House board reported extensive misconduct.
Ritter’s Franciscan superiors in Rome approved a transfer to India, but outrage following a news report about the move forced the plan to be scrapped. Ritter died in 1999.
The worst case in Massachusetts prior to Geoghan followed the Ritter scandal.
Ex-priest James R. Porter of the Fall River Diocese admitted having “50 to 100” victims in a television interview and was indicted for molesting 28 children. He remains in prison.
By 1992, Berry’s history of the scandals, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, was estimating that 400 priests had been accused, costing the church some $400 million.
That year the U.S. bishops took their first major collective action, endorsing a set of principles for handling cases. Though individual bishops were not obligated to follow them, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels of Commonweal magazine notes that many misdeeds now coming to light actually occurred prior to the bishops’ action.
The growing victims’ rights movement suffered a credibility setback in 1994, when Steven Cook recanted his sensational claim that Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had molested him. But the exoneration overshadowed the fact that Bernardin’s former archdiocese in Cincinnati paid a settlement to Cook over a seminary teacher’s abuse.
The biggest damage award to date occurred in 1997, when a Dallas jury heard charges from 11 victims of ex-priest Rudy Kos and returned a $120-million verdict. The award was later cut to about $30 million, but the diocese needed to take out mortgages and sell property to cover the judgment.
Two years later, Bishop J. Keith Symons of Palm Beach, Fla., became the first U.S. bishop to resign after admitting molestation. That scandal was greatly compounded last month when Bishop Anthony O’Connell, the successor Rome appointed to clean house, resigned for the identical reason.
In 2000, well before Geoghan was accused of molesting 130 boys and dioceses nationwide began re-examining personnel files and abuse policies, the Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote an introduction for a new edition of Berry’s history.
The sex abuse situation, he contended, “may be the greatest scandal in the history of religion in America and perhaps the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation.”