A Brief Overview of the Crisis

Downloaded June 9, 2003

1985 Gilbert Gauthe, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, pleads guilty to molesting 11 boys and is sentenced to 20 years in prison. He is accused of abusing more than 100 boys. With Attorney Ray Mouton, Fathers Michael Peterson and Thomas Doyle, O.P., draw up a 92-page report, The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner, and urge the U.S. bishops to develop a national policy for responding to this scandal. In executive session at their June meeting in Collegeville, Minnesota, the bishops address the issue. The Mouton-Peterson-Doyle report is never formally acted on but prompts some bishops to draw up diocesan policies (including review boards) to address past abuse and prevent it in the future.

1986 Jason Berry wins a Catholic Press Association award for his 1985 National Catholic Reporter articles about the clergy sex-abuse scandal, focusing on Louisiana but noting other places.

1980s Protesters regarding clergy sexual abuse begin to picket semiannual bishops' conference meetings. Insurance companies start excluding clergy sexual abuse from group insurance coverage sold to dioceses and religious communities. Staff members of the bishops' conference help dioceses respond to this crisis and speak with officials of the Holy See about canonical changes needed to help the Church respond effectively and permanently.

1989 In Chicago, Barbara Blaine founds Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

1991 Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup, Inc., is founded by Jeanne Miller, the mother of an abused boy in Chicago. Later the group shortens its name to The Linkup.

1992 The U.S. bishops agree on five principles to deal with current cases of sexual abuse and prevent future cases. The bishops decide not to establish a national policy for handling these cases, but they encourage dioceses that have not yet drawn up a policy to do so.

1993 The U.S. bishops appoint an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. In 1994-96 this committee issues three volumes of Restoring Trust: A Pastoral Response to Sexual Abuse (a resource for bishops). The committee is reauthorized in 1997 and in 2000.

1994 Pope John Paul II authorizes for five years exceptions to canon law (extending the Church's statute of limitations to an abused person's 28th birthday and extending to cases involving minors over 16 the canonical provisions for handling cases of sexual abuse). The exceptions are renewed in 1999 for another 10 years.

1995 The administrative board of the bishops' conference issues Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse.

1997 A jury finds the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, guilty of negligence regarding Father Rudolph Kos's abuse of minors. The diocese is ordered to pay $119.6 million (later reduced by the court to $31 million).


(January) An appeals court judge upholds Judge Constance Sweeney's earlier ruling to unseal more than 10,000 pages of documents in lawsuits against Father John Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston. The documents show that Cardinal Bernard Law and his aides had reassigned Geoghan, accused of assaulting more than 130 minors, and other abusive priests. More documents in similar cases are released later.

(February) Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) is formed in the Archdiocese of Boston; by December it has become a national organization with over 25,000 members. In some dioceses, VOTF is banned from meeting on parish property.

(April 23-25) U.S. cardinals and officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) meet in Rome with Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials regarding this crisis.

(May) Members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, the National Advisory Board (mostly laypeople advising the U.S. bishops), other bishops and USCCB staff members work on a Charter and Essential Norms to be presented in Dallas.

(June 12-15) In Dallas, U.S. bishops hear testimony from abuse victims and adopt a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, as well as Essential Norms for implementing the Charter. In his presidential address, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, says: "What we are facing is not a breakdown in belief, but a rupture in our relationship as bishops with the faithful. And this breakdown is understandable. We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps." The bishops announce the first members of a National Review Board, vote to establish an Office for Child and Youth Protection and appoint an ad hoc committee to address how they responded to this crisis.

(October) A Gallup poll reveals that two thirds of those contacted said that bishops had done a poor job in dealing with clergy sexual abuse of minors. The Holy See announces there will be an eight-member commission of Vatican officials and U.S. bishops to study and revise some elements of the norms approved in Dallas (10/18). After all members are announced on October 23, they meet in Rome and release their report on October 30.

(November) Kathleen McChesney is appointed to head the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection (11/7). The U.S. bishops revise the Essential Norms and the Charter. Bishops continue discussion of their response to this crisis (11/13).

(December) The Holy See approves the Essential Norms, which are binding on all U.S. dioceses/eparchies and will be reviewed after two years (12/8). Cardinal Law resigns as archbishop of Boston (12/13). Nationwide, at least 325 priests have resigned or been suspended in 2002 because of this crisis.


(January) A new law takes effect in California, lifting for one year the statute of limitations on civil sex-abuse cases against individuals and negligence cases against groups (1/1). Other states consider similar action. The New York Times publishes a study saying that by 2003, 4,268 people had accused 1,205 current, former or deceased priests of sexually abusing them as minors within the last 52 years. Numbers are given diocese by diocese (1/12).

(February) At The Catholic University of America, the USCCB and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith conduct workshops to update 210 canon lawyers on procedures for conducting tribunals to investigate allegations of clergy sexual abuse. The pope approves changes allowing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to expel notorious offenders without a trial. Laypeople can be part of tribunals conducting formal trials leading to dismissing a priest or deacon from the clerical state (2/7).

Resources Regarding This Crisis

. At the U.S. bishop's Web site, readers can find the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing With Allegations of Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons and many other documents about this scandal.

. At St. Anthony Messenger Press's Web site, readers can find all the sex-abuse scandal material posted on the special feature The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse by Priests.

. More information about the "Healing the Body of Christ" program is available at Renew International.

. In March 2003, the Canon Law Society of America issued a 47-page Guide for implementing the Essential Norms. The Guide outlines the rights of those who have been abused and those accused of abuse. More information about the Guide is available at their Web site.

. Jason Berry's book Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children (Doubleday, 1992-now University of Illinois Press) describes how this crisis was handled in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, with additional information about abuse nationally.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.