Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse Meets the Civil Law

Article excerpt

I. OVERVIEW OF THE PROBLEM

In 1984, the Roman Catholic Church began to experience the complex and highly embarrassing problem of clergy sexual misconduct in the United States. Within months of the first public case emerging in Lafayette, Louisiana, it was clear that this problem was not geographically isolated, nor a minuscule exception. (1) Instances of clergy sexual misconduct surfaced with increasing notoriety. Bishops, the leaders of the United States Catholic dioceses, were caught off guard. They were unsure of how to deal with specific cases, and appeared defensive when trying to control an expanding and uncontrollable problem. The secular press and electronic media exposed the Lafayette case, and within a year the priest-perpetrator, Gilbert Gauthe, pled guilty to thirty-nine counts of sexual battery, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. (2) In addition, the bishop and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction that had enabled Gauthe's predatory behavior were subsequently subjected to a civil suit for monetary damages. (3)

The sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic clerics has served as a catalyst for intensive inquiry into two basic aspects of church life: the sexual abuse of persons by members of a clergy obliged to celibacy, and the response by the authority structure of the Catholic Church. The scrutiny by the secular media has been relentless, and continues to increase in its fearlessness and intensity. (4) This public exposure has strengthened the resolve of vast numbers of victims to disclose their abuse. After first approaching Church authorities for assistance and redress, most victims have found the Church's internal system unwilling or unable to provide the relief sought. Further, in many cases, the official Church reaction amounted to a re-victimization, whereby the victims were treated as an enemy force. (5) This has resulted in the second, but equally vital area of scrutiny--the use of the American civil court system as a means by which victims of clergy sexual abuse seek redress.

Although there are isolated instances of criminal and civil court actions prior to 1984, the Lafayette case appears to have opened a wide gate. (6) Since that time there have been several hundred criminal prosecutions of Catholic clerics throughout the United States. (7) Charges have varied from child endangerment to alienation of affection and aggravated rape. (8) Sentences have varied from probation, to multiple life terms. (9) It is estimated that perhaps 250-300 Catholic clerics have received sentences through the criminal justice system. (10)

Since 1984, there have been about 3000 civil cases related to clergy sex abuse throughout the United States. (11) The vast majority of these cases have ended in settlement. There have been about twelve trials, all of which were high profile. (12) The twists and turns of the civil discovery process have been the most important factors in exposing the extent and nature of clergy sexual abuse. This has also been the most damaging force for the image of Church leadership, because it opened up the Church to public scrutiny on a new and invasive level.

The problem of clergy sexual abuse has been most visible in the United States, but it is by no means confined to this country. Exposure of widespread sexual abuse and consequent hierarchical mishandling has occurred in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Austria, Germany, France, Argentina, and Hong Kong. (13) The denunciation of clerical abusers, their notoriety, and subsequent legal actions against them depends on several factors: the willingness of victims to go public, the cooperation of the secular media in exposing the problem, and the prosecution of suits by the civil legal system. Beneath these factors is an over-arching dimension that is perhaps the single most important issue: the place of the Catholic Church in the civic culture. …