HomeCatholic Church Sex Abuse

Catholic Church Sex Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church is a key offender in the nationwide scandal of child sexual abuse. Abusive priests misused their authority to sexually abuse children. High-ranking church officials often covered up these horrific incidents. In some cases, these cover-ups perpetuated the cycle of abuse in other parishes and dioceses. Today, survivors of clergy abuse are seeking legal justice.

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What Is Clergy Abuse?

Clergy abuse refers to a member of the clergy sexually abusing a minor or another non-consenting person. Allegations of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church most often involve priests accused of abuse. For this reason, clergy abuse is often referred to as “priest abuse.” The majority of priest abuse cases are committed against minors.

Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse may include any of the following sexual acts perpetrated by an adult on a minor:

  • Inappropriate touching or groping
  • Exposing oneself to a minor
  • Masturbation in the presence of a minor
  • Forced masturbation of a minor
  • Sexual intercourse of any kind with a minor

Source: RAINN

How Children Are Abused By Priests

Priest abuse often begins with a process called “grooming.” This is a common tactic used by child predators.

Grooming is the process of establishing trust with a victim for the intent of future sexual abuse. Through the grooming process, a predator isolates the victim. The abuser then gains his or her victim’s trust and controls the newly formed relationship.


Source: American Bar Association

As spiritual leaders, priests receive a great deal of trust from their congregation. This trust benefits predatory priests in several ways during the grooming process:

  • Identifying potential victims – As congregation leaders, priests build close relationships with their parishioners. Predators abuse these relationships and identify vulnerable youths as abuse targets.
  • Isolating victims – Parents and guardians often entrust a priest with their child’s spiritual development. A predator may use this trust to isolate a child victim under the guise of spiritual counseling or tutorship.
  • Controlling and concealing the relationship – Priests are “men of God.” Abusive priests often leverage this authority to threaten their victims with God’s displeasure. By doing so, these predators can force a victim to continue and conceal the abuse.

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

Sexual abuse by clergy members has been documented in every state in the United States. The abuse allegations span multiple decades. What is further troubling in the Catholic Church scandal are the cover-ups orchestrated by high-ranking officials. Instead of safeguarding children, many dioceses and church officials concealed the abuse and protected the abusers.

Cover-Ups Deepen Scandal in the Catholic Church

Many diocesan leaders moved accused priests to different parishes rather than report the abuse to law enforcement agencies. Bishops, cardinals and other church leaders protected pedophiles over innocent child victims.

These cover-ups have led some victims to file claims against the dioceses and diocesan leaders who protected priests.

Boston Globe Catholic Priest Scandal

Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been documented for centuries, going back as far as the 11th century. It has gained increased media attention in the last two decades. This is due in large part to a series published by the Boston Globe.

In 2002, the Boston Globe published its findings after a months-long investigation into Catholic Church sexual abuse cases in Boston. In a series of articles, the Boston Globe detailed decades of sexual abuse by priests in the Greater Boston parishes. Furthermore, the articles detailed the deceptive actions taken by high-ranking church officials to cover up the abuse.

The results of this investigation caused a public outcry. For many Americans, the series broke their long-standing trust in the Catholic Church. The series also prompted similar investigations in several other states and cities. The incredible story of the Boston Globe’s investigation also inspired the award-winning Spotlight movie.

Priest Abuse by State

To learn more about clergy abuse in specific states, visit our individual state pages:

Catholic Priest Database

Our team at AbuseLawsuit.com has compiled a nationwide list of abusive priests and clergy members. For your convenience, you can search the list of priests accused of abuse by diocese, by state, or by name.

Clergy Abuse Statistics

From news reports, court documents and lists published by individual Catholic dioceses across the nation, there is a wealth of statistical data about sexual abuse in the Church.

How Many Catholic Priests Have Been Accused of Abuse?

More than 6,000 Catholic clergy members have been credibly accused of sexual abuse in the United States. Many of these accusations of abuse date back decades. Many of these clergy members are also now deceased.

This number is an underestimation. As of May 26, 2020, 41 Catholic dioceses and religious orders have not released lists of priests accused of abuse. Furthermore, many victims may never choose to come forward with allegations of abuse.

When it comes to child sexual abuse, one allegation is too many. However, the average percentage of abusers found in the Catholic Church is generally no higher than the percentage of abusers found in other religions or outside of religious communities.


Source: Psychology Today

John Jay College Research Team Report

In 2004, The John Jay College Research Team conducted a study to review the extent of Catholic priest abuse in the United States. The study was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Today, the study is commonly referred to as the John Jay Report.

Following the study, the research team published a report titled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010. The report notes approximately 11,000 incidents of child sexual abuse allegedly took place in the Catholic Church between 1950 and 2002. These allegations were reported to Catholic dioceses nationwide. However, many of the allegations were reported decades after the incidents took place.

The John Jay Report identified key data points around the scope of the child sexual abuse problem within the Catholic Church:

  • Between 1950 and 2002, accusations of child sexual abuse were made against 4,392 priests. This number makes up 4% of all Catholic priests serving the Church during this time period.
  • Between 1950 and 2002, 81% of victims abused by Catholic clergy members were male.
  • Between 1950 and 2002, 22% of victims were 10 or under at the time the priest abuse took place.
  • Between 1950 and 2002, 41% of Catholic Church sexual abuse took place in the home of the priest.
  • Incidents of abuse in the Catholic Church increased during the 1960s and 1970s. However, they began to decrease by the mid-1980s.
  • Only about 2% of all priests accused of abuse between 1950 and 2002 received prison sentences.

Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Against the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church has dealt with sexual abuse allegations for decades. However, up until recently, most priest sexual abuse claims have been handled privately. Most dioceses prefer to settle abuse allegations outside of the courtroom and away from the media. These settlements frequently come with confidentiality clauses as well.

Supporters of such agreements argue this discretion protects victims. However, critics claim this secrecy has also been shown to protect predators in the priesthood. Quiet settlements have allowed numerous abusive priests to move on to different dioceses and new, unsuspecting victims.

Today, thousands of victims abused by priests have filed child sexual abuse lawsuits against Catholic dioceses across the country. This wave of clergy sex abuse lawsuits stems from two main sources:

  1. Time – Studies have shown that it can take decades for a victim of child sexual abuse to report the incident. Victims abused in their early childhood may wait until late adulthood to tell anyone about their experiences. Currently, the many survivors coming forward with new allegations of sexual abuse by priests were abused several decades ago.
  2. Legal Deadlines – Lawmakers in many states have recently expanded the legal deadlines around filing child sexual abuse claims. More victims who were abused decades ago are now able to take legal action against their abusers.

Can the Catholic Church Be Sued?

Yes, Catholic dioceses can be sued. Many priest abuse lawsuits name the abusive priest and the responsible diocese. Often, in these sex abuse cases, the responsible diocese is sued for negligence.

However, whether or not you can sue an institution for abuse may come down to individual state laws. Our legal team can help you determine whom to sue in a Catholic sex abuse lawsuit. Contact us today to learn more about your legal options.

Lawsuits Against the Pope

In the Catholic Church scandal, lawsuits have also been filed against the Holy See.

The Holy See is the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope is the head of the Holy See.

These lawsuits claim the Holy See played a role in concealing child sexual abuse committed by priests. Policies initiated by the body instructed bishops to keep details of abuse allegations secret from their dioceses and law enforcement agencies. Many lawsuits claim these policies allowed abuse to continue in the Catholic Church.

In December 2019, Pope Francis abolished the confidentiality policies surrounding child sexual abuse cases. It was a major step for the Catholic Church, though critics point out the move was long overdue.

Catholic Church & Statute of Limitations

State lawmakers across the country are revising the statute of limitations for claims of child sex abuse. These new statutes provide more time for survivors of sexual abuse to file legal claims against their abusers. For many survivors, this extra time is vital.

It can take decades for a victim of child sexual abuse to process the trauma. The extended statutes allow these survivors to come to terms with the abuse and file legal claims within a state’s time limit.

A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs are determined at the state level and vary based on the crime.

To learn more about legal deadlines, visit our statute of limitations page >

Victim advocates applaud the revised statutes. But, the Catholic Church has actively lobbied against these new laws. In 2019, a group of law firms commissioned a study looking at the amount of money spent by the Catholic Church lobbying new statutes of limitations.

The study found the Catholic Church paid more than $10 million in lobbying funds between 2011 and 2018. The $10 million was used to lobby new statutes in eight different states in the North East. The states include Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.

Some Catholic dioceses have also used the pulpit to advocate against these new bills. Lawmakers have been called out in their home parishes for supporting these bills. Others have been threatened for proposing or supporting legislative changes to the statutes.

Why the Catholic Church Opposes New Statutes

The Catholic Church opposes these statutes for several reasons:

  • Lawsuits often draw negative media attention. News stories covering abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church can impact the Church’s reputation negatively. As past confidentiality agreements show, the Catholic Church favors discretion when it comes to sexual abuse settlements.
  • Compensation won in a lawsuit is often greater than compensation paid privately. If the Catholic Church settles with abuse victims outside of the legal system, they often pay significantly less in compensation sums. For this reason, many dioceses have opened victim compensation funds to handle payouts privately and avoid costly lawsuits.
  • Allowing more time for victims to sue means a greater number of lawsuits can be filed against the Church. The Church is now facing thousands of lawsuits across the country in states where the legal deadlines have been extended. Many of these cases are decades old and involve clergy members who are no longer with the dioceses or are deceased. The recent wave of new lawsuits has overwhelmed many dioceses. In fact, numerous dioceses have turned to bankruptcy in order to pay their debts to victims.

Have You Been Abused By a Priest?

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, you are not alone. Every day, more survivors come forward with their experiences. It is not too late to speak up. No matter when the abuse took place, you can still report the incident.

Victims of Catholic priest sex abuse can report allegations to local law enforcement agencies or to the diocese where the abuse took place.

Depending on the circumstances of your case, there may also be legal options available to you. Consulting an experienced clergy abuse lawyer can be a good first step if you are considering legal action. Our legal team can help you understand the legal process and determine if legal action is right for you.

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