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Children's Rights

Child Sexual Abuse And The Catholic Church

Though various cases of child sexual abuse caught the public's eye in the United States through the 1990s and early 2000s, the nation was stunned by allegations that involved the Catholic Church. The first awareness of what would later unfold into a huge child abuse scandal came in the early 1990s when Father James Porter was convicted of abusing some one hundred boys and girls in various Catholic parishes around the Boston area stretching back into the 1960s.

Children's Defense Fund

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) is a national organization that promotes the social welfare of children. The CDF lobbies Congress for funding to support various children's programs and conducts national awareness campaigns. It regularly publishes reports on the health and social well-being of children. Much of CDF's efforts have focused on saving federal programs from budget cuts.

Marian Wright Edelman, the first black woman to pass the state bar exam in Mississippi, founded the CDF in 1973. Edelman first gained national attention in the 1960s when she successfully stopped the state of Mississippi from withholding federal Head Start program funds from black American children. By the late 1960s Edelman had established the Washington Research Project, a group dedicated to fighting racial discrimination. A staff attorney for the group was Hillary Rodham Clinton, who later became first lady.

In 1973 Edelman turned the Washington Research Project into the Children's Defense Fund to focus on the needs of children. After fighting year after year to prevent budget cuts, the CDF got a boost Founder of the CDF Marian Wright Edelman (far right) poses with a group of children on "Children's Day." (AP/Wide World Photos) when Bill Clinton became president in 1993. Clinton signed two pieces of legislation promoted by CDF during his terms. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided the right for workers to take unpaid leave to care for children or family members in medical need, while the Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act of 1994 increased enforcement of child support payments.

Porter was found guilty and the court sentenced him to up to twenty years in prison in December 1993. The case shocked Catholics and others around Boston, and the city's cardinal (a high ranking Catholic Church official), Bernard Law, consoled the public by stating that Porter's abuse was an isolated or single case. Law condemned the news media for its coverage of the scandal, but introduced a new sexual abuse policy for his region anyway to calm his church members.

The Boston scandal quieted down for the next several years until another area Catholic priest, John Geoghan, was investigated for 130 cases of child sexual abuse in 1998. Geoghan was forced out of the priesthood and convicted in January 2002 of child sexual abuse. The court sentenced him to up to ten years in prison. Again Cardinal Law insisted this was simply another unusual case regarding Catholic priests.

After Geoghan's case and conviction, however, many more alleged victims came forward about sexual abuse involving priests. Newspaper inquiries and criminal investigations revealed many more. Secret church documents became public in 2002 and proved the Catholic Church not only had knowledge of sexual abuse by priests but had covered it up.

The documents mentioned numerous priests, hundreds of victims, and how claims were repeatedly ignored by church officials. Some alleged victims, however, had been paid off to keep them quiet while certain priests were transferred to new churches and given brief counseling. The documents showed that even Geoghan had been transferred two times for molesting children before finally being caught by authorities. Another priest, Paul Shanley, had also been transferred to new parishes despite a history of child sexual abuse known to the church.

Massachusetts had no law that required suspected child abuse to be reported to authorities. Some cases of child rape, however, were clearly criminal acts and they too went unreported by church authorities. Documents showed church leaders made no attempt to ever inform law enforcement of these criminal activities. As public disgust grew from one revelation after another, Cardinal Law repeatedly refused to resign from his post. In a rare move in April 2002, the pope summoned all U.S. cardinals to the Vatican in Rome to discuss the sex abuse issue.

By late 2002 some 1,200 Catholic priests in the United States were accused of child sex abuse. Four U.S. bishops

Cardinal Bernard Law

Bernard Law was born on November 4, 1931, to a U.S. Air Force colonel and his wife in Torreon, Mexico. The family moved from one military base to another; as a result Law was educated in North and South America and the Virgin Islands. He then attended Harvard University and received a degree in medieval history in 1953. Following Harvard, Law entered the seminary and became an ordained Catholic priest in 1961.

During his years in the Catholic Church, Law was known for his work with immigrants and minorities. In the 1960s he was very active in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and in 1968 Law took a job in the office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He became known among church leaders across the country and was appointed bishop in a Missouri diocese in 1973. Law became bishop in Boston in 1984, one of the most powerful Catholic Church regions in the nation. The following year he was ordained as a cardinal.

Law was immensely popular in the Boston area. He rose in international prominence as well within the church. Law also met with President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) and other religious leaders shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Law's leadership began to crumble in 2002 as the child sexual abuse scandal Cardinal Bernard Law walking away from a podium after reading another apology for his role in the clergy sex abuse scandal. (AP/Wide World Photos) spread in Boston, involving hundreds of victims and numerous priests over a period of decades. In December 2002 when secret church documents revealed that Law not only knew about the abuse but actually tried to cover it up, Law was forced to resign as cardinal before the pope.

In May 2004 Law received a new assignment in Rome, Italy. Much anger resulted in Boston that Law should remain in a church leadership position after being directly involved in covering up so much child sexual abuse.

resigned as the scandal went worldwide; other bishops resigned in Argentina, Germany, Ireland, Canada, Switzerland, Poland, and elsewhere. Then in December 2002 even more revealing church documents were discovered. These new documents described widespread child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and an equally large cover-up. Not only was Cardinal Law aware of all the abuse, but he actively tried to hide incident after incident of child rape from the public and law enforcement.

The second set of documents finally led to Cardinal Law's resignation on December 13, 2002. The Boston archdiocese was near bankruptcy under the weight of some four hundred claims of sexual abuse. By October 2003 Law's successor, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, helped negotiate an $85 million settlement with more than 550 sexual abuse victims. In May 2004 the Boston archdiocese announced the closure of about sixty-five parishes as it continued to deal with the consequences of the abuse scandal.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawChildren's Rights - Protection Of Children, Childcare, Child Labor, Kidnapping And Abduction, Forms Of Child Abuse