The Rev. John J. Geoghan died in prison in 2003, killed by a fellow inmate. No longer a priest at the time of his death, Geoghan had been convicted in 2002 of groping a 10 year-old boy in a public swimming pool in Waltham, Massachusetts. When Middlesex Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin handed down the maximum allowable sentence, she clearly noted that Geoghan’s crimes went far beyond the one incident. The ex-priest, she said, was a danger to any young boy unfortunate enough to come in contact with him.
Prior to his conviction, Geoghan had been transferred among six different parishes and accused of molesting more than 130 boys over three decades. By the time he was brought to justice, the Catholic Church could no longer conceal the scandal within its midst. Although the majority of abusive acts by priests occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, a third of all allegations, many of them more than 20 years old, were not reported until 2002-2003. The notorious Father Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, was never investigated, tried or disciplined by the church’s justice system. At least three successive archbishops were informed of the abuse but never reported it. Complaints by Father Murphy’s numerous victims were ignored by police and prosecutors. In 1974, Murphy was quietly transferred to a diocese in northern Wisconsin, leaving him free to roam among children in schools, parishes, and even a juvenile detention center. When he died in 1998, he was still a priest.
In 1985, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe was sentenced to 20 years in a Louisiana prison for molesting at least 35 children. The ensuing outcry prompted more people to come forward with charges of sex abuse against priests. But it wasn’t until 1992 that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set forth policy recommendations for handling such cases. Over the next decade, while the issue seemed to disappear from public view, church lawyers were quietly settling lawsuits, compensating victims and reassigning many of the priests to new parishes. The scandal re-ignited with the Geoghan case in 2002. By 2011, times had, indeed, changed. Following charges of sex abuse against parochial school teachers in Philadelphia, a grand jury indicted Msgr. William Lynn for child endangerment. It was the first time that a senior church official in the U.S. had been charged with covering up a sex abuse scandal.
Despite “zero tolerance” guidelines adopted by U.S. bishops in 2002, the Catholic Church remains divided between those who favor the protection of priests and church officials above all others and those who support openness and accountability. To date, the Catholic Church has paid out an estimated $2 billion in settlements. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Father Murphy’s old haunt) has been flooded by 550 restitution claims for sex abuse. It has already paid out over $30 million in settlements and court costs and has filed for bankruptcy. Seven other dioceses across the U.S have filed for bankruptcy since clergy sex abuse claims erupted in 2002, from Wilmington, Delaware to Fairbanks, Alaska.
It is common for those who abuse children to seek out opportunities for easy access and cover. It is no surprise, therefore, that such individuals can be found among coaches, teachers, youth leaders, pediatricians, priests, ministers and rabbis. The Boy Scouts of America paid out $18.5 million in 2010 to a former scout abused by an assistant scout leader. The lawsuit revealed secret files, maintained by the Scouts for more than 70 years, documenting sex abuse claims against troop leaders and volunteers. In the wake of sex abuse charges in college sports programs, attempts have been made in the New York State legislature to revise the statute of limitations on civil claims. Currently, civil actions for child sex abuse are limited to 5 years after the event has been reported to the police or 5 years after the victim turns 18. Proposed measures include a one-year window to allow for filing of previously barred claims. The revisions have been consistently blocked by churches, synagogues, schools and municipalities who fear the burden and expense of increasing their potential liability.