New papal edict attempts to address long history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

Ian Ryan, Staff Writer

On March 29, the Papacy in Vatican released a new papal edict against the sexual abuse happening in its own churches, making it mandatory for Vatican City officials or its diplomats around the globe to immediately report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities or  face possible jail time. While many have likely not thought about the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church since the release of the 2016 Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight”, which detailed the story of the thorough investigative work that Boston Globe reporters did to bring this issue to light, the papal edict is an important distinctive step finally being taken by the church. To understand its significance, we must acknowledge the sexual abuse that has gone on within the Catholic Church for a very long time. Only in the last 40 years has it truly come to the attention of the public.

While the Boston Globe investigative work truly brought the issue to a global audience, the first widely publicized case of a clergyman being caught for sexual abuse was that of Rev. Gilbert J. Gauthe in 1983. Gauthe worked in a variety of churches in the Los Angeles area from up to 1983, in which time he was said to have abused up to 100 children. Allegations against him first surfaced then, and within two years he was convicted of abusing up to 39 young children. Even with this conviction, and a variety of civil suits and settlements against him, Gauthe served less than 10 years in prison, although he was sentenced to 20 years. According to the Houston Chronicle, the judge who intervened on his behalf “was from Gauthe’s hometown, and Gauthe’s grandfather had helped the judge’s widowed mother many years previously.” Because of the judge’s intervention, Gauthe was able to continue his work as a priest in Texas, where he was then accused of further sexual abuse of children. As Melanie Sakoda, the leader of the Bay Area branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in an interview with the Urban Legend, “The Gauthe case was the first highly-publicized case where the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was truly revealed to the public… in many ways this case set the groundwork, or the base for the Spotlight work that came after.”

Gauthe’s highly publicized case was the first example of the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church finally shown to the public, although it was only a sliver of a much larger issue. It also laid the framework for the Boston Globe reporters portrayed in Spotlight to reveal the issue to the public. These journalists investigated the Catholic Church in depth and discovered evidence of clergymen taking advantage of children and superiors in the organization completely covering them up. They released their findings in what came to be known as the “Spotlight Reports” on June 7, 2002. They found a vast amount of information on the sexual abuse that the Reverend John G. Geoghan carried out for years and the way that the archdiocese shuffled him around for years from parish to parish. They then released multiple articles profiling the rampant sexual abuse they found in Boston, and the various and incredible lengths that the church went to in an effort to cover up the issue. By May 12, 2002, the scandal was in the public’s attention, with many condemning the church for their actions; by December 1, 2002, the Archdiocese of Boston filed for bankruptcy in the face of these sexual abuse claims. By the time the Globe had finished their investigative work, they had released over 600 stories detailing the wrongdoings of the archdiocese. While many might have assumed that this would lead to the sexual abuse in the church would be correctly combated and diminished, giving its victims and the government a platform to force the church to address this issue, that has not necessarily been the case.

Not only has the issue of sexual abuse in the church failed to improve, but as more information of the abuse has come to light, the errors in the way that the Catholic Church has dealt with its various priests have only become more evident. The first example of these is with the Pennsylvania Diocese Victims Report. This was “a two-year grand jury investigation into widespread sexual abuse of children in Pennsylvania and the systemic cover up by senior church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican”, as their own website puts it. This grand jury report uncovered a mountain of evidence of continued sexual abuse and cover ups within the Catholic Church of only Pennsylvania, with hundreds of cases of repeated actions by the Catholic Church to repress the truth about what was happening. Not only was the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report incredibly damning of the Catholic Church, but it also was an incredibly publicized example of the endemic problem in the Catholic Church, and the reason it still prevails to this day. As Melanie Sakoda described it, “What allows this abuse to continue in the church is the behavior of the bishops and the higher ups in the church, who continue to foster this abuse by attempting to cover it up and not reveal it to the public.” In other words, what allows this abuse to continue in the church is how the bishops and more elder clergymen actively diminish the problem.

However, this problem is not only happening in the United States. In Australia, on March 6, former cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing two boys back in 1997. This case is another publicized example of the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church being shown to the world, as this case has become an international issue, and this has pushed the church to make a stand.

While the papal edict may look like a very promising step against the issue, it is already illegal to not report sexual abuse when it happens, and churches have been getting away with it for years. Sakoda believes that what we need more than this is an institutional change within the Catholic Church, and this may be the first step. “There has to be a culture change within the Church, where they prioritize the rights of those most vulnerable,” she said. “This will only happen if we cause it to, by supporting victims and continuing to protest the way that the Catholic Church has dealt with their cases.”