What They Knew in 1985: 17 Years Ago, a Report on Clergy Sex Abuse Warned U.S. Bishops of Trouble Ahead

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

What They Knew in 1985: 17 Years Ago, a Report on Clergy Sex Abuse Warned U.S. Bishops of Trouble Ahead


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


As attorneys across the nation press countless clergy sex abuse cases against the church, two critical questions they most often ask are: "What did the bishop know?" and "When did he know it?" At stake is episcopal culpability. Also at stake in thousands of lawsuits, many filed and many others still being planned, is potentially billions of dollars in payments to victims.

In light of these developments, a 92-page report on clergy sex abuse, distributed to the U.S. bishops in May 1985, warning them of the trouble ahead, has been repeatedly cited by victims' attorneys as a hard measure of episcopal negligence. The document, reportedly referred to in more than 100 lawsuits, is well known to the bishops.

Among the insights in this document are clear statements that while help can be provided for abusive priests, there is "no hope" for a cure for some of them, that a bishop "should suspend immediately" a priest accused of sexual abuse when "the allegation has any possible merit or truth," and that "In this sophisticated society a media policy of silence implies either necessary secrecy or cover-up." It said, "cliches such as `no comment' must be cast away."

In some ways this is a story of what might have been or, perhaps, what might have been avoided.

As the bishops prepare for their June meeting in Dallas at which they are expected to formulate their responses to the clergy sex abuse scandal, the names of two priests and an attorney, Fr. Michael Peterson, Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle and Ray Mouton, are likely to haunt them. These are the names of the men who attempted to warn the bishops in 1985, pleading with them to take firm actions on the sex abuse cases.

The authors maintained that the bishops ignored their recommendations. For their part, the bishops deny that claim.

It was in January 1985 that Peterson, then director of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.; Doyle, a canonist at the office of the papal nuncio, or pope's representative, in Washington D.C.; and Mouton, a civil attorney representing a priest, Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, then charged with pedophilia, began their collaboration. The collaboration continued over five months and resulted in the report, backed with more than 100 pages of supporting evidence. The report covered the civil, canonical, and psychological aspects of priest sexual involvement with children.

When the men turned over their findings to the bishops, it might have seemed extreme to some; today it reads as a prophetic document.

The Catholic church, the three men wrote, faces "extremely serious financial consequences" and "significant injury" to its image as a result of the "sexual molestation of children by clerics, priests, permanent deacons and transient deacons, nonordained religious, lay employees and seminarians."

At the time the men finished the final draft of the report in June 1985, they noted, more than $100 million in claims had been made against just one diocese as a result of sexual contact between a priest "and a number of minor children." The report said the settlement for seven cases, including fees and expenses, had exceeded $5 million, and that "the average settlement for .. each case was nearly $500,000." It estimated that "total projected losses for the decade" could rise to $1 billion.

The men also warned that television and newspaper reporters--NCR was cited by name--were already on to the story and that the American Bar Association and plaintiff lawyers were "conducting studies ... about this new, developing area of law."

"The potential exposure to the Catholic church ... is very great," the report added, recommending that clerics accused of abuse should not be permitted to function "in any priestly capacity."

High recidivism

While the report stated that treatment could "help rehabilitate clerics so that they may return to active ministry," the authors conditioned that optimism with a warning that strict conditions and lifelong treatment be imposed.

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