Modern History of Clergy Abuse

Clergy abuse is the crime of a member of the religious order – such as a priest, bishop or deacon – sexually abusing or assaulting a member of the church. Clergy abuse has been a pervasive issue for centuries, but public awareness of it has only recently gained traction in the last two decades. 

The modern history of clergy abuse in the United States and California specifically takes a harrowing look at a crime that has impacted thousands of survivors and undermined parishioners’ trust in the Catholic Church, starting with the first sexual abuse criminal case against an American priest and ending with demands for justice from survivors. 

The First Charges Against an American Roman Catholic Priest

1984 was the year of the first sex abuse charges pressed against a Roman Catholic priest in America. The defendant, Bishop Gilbert Gauthe of Louisiana, pled guilty to the sexual abuse of 37 children. He served half of a 20-year sentence in prison before his release and relocation to Texas. This landmark case shed light on a serious issue: authorities and superiors within the Church covering up incidents they knew about in the early 1980s. Church officials in this case failed to take action or protect parishioners from Gauthe.

Increased Awareness of Clergy Sexual Abuse

In 2002, clergy abuse finally started to become a more frequent topic of conversation among news stations when the Boston Globe issued a detailed account of extensive sexual abuse and the Church’s attempts to conceal cases. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its unprecedented coverage of clergy sexual abuse. Years later, in 2018, a Philadelphia grand jury made the public aware of more cases of clergy abuse – along with Church cover-ups – dating back to the 1940s. The 900-page report had startling details of more than 1,000 alleged incidents of sexual abuse.

The Pope Calls for Action

In May 2019, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, made it mandatory for Catholic priests and nuns to report clergy sexual abuse to church authorities. The new law also mandated that clergy members come forward with any cover-ups from superiors within the diocese. Pope Francis issued the law, which also provides protections for whistleblowers, to hold the Catholic hierarchy responsible for failing to protect parishioners from sexual abuse. It requires dioceses around the world to create systems for receiving and responding to claims confidentially.

Dioceses in California Release the Names of Almost 700 Offenders

Under pressure from the Pope, dioceses throughout California agreed to publicize Disclosure Lists, or lists of names of priests and other clergy members with credible allegations of sexual abuse against them. Collectively, dioceses in California released the names of close to 700 accused individuals, many of whom have convictions against them for committing sex crimes. The allegations against these individuals encompass almost every imaginable sex crime.

Most of the stories involve minors, or children under 18 years old. Some, however, involve the alleged sexual abuse of adults, including adults with disabilities. These heinous crimes have affected thousands of men and women throughout California alone. The lists of released names may help survivors come forward as they realize they are not alone in the fight against clergy sexual abuse.

Survivors Demand Justice and Compensation

The power imbalance between abuser and survivor within the church can lead to significant compensation for survivors – especially when church and diocesan leaders failed to intervene. A California clergy abuse attorney may be able to help survivors obtain justice and financial recovery for their damages. 

The lawyers at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi have spent years focusing exclusively on sexual abuse and assault laws. We offer free, 100% confidential consultations to discuss potential clergy abuse cases. The church may owe you damages for your emotional distress, mental anguish, medications, therapy costs and more. Contact us today.