Backgrounder: What Led to The National Abuse Report

WASHINGTON — A landmark was reached Jan. 6 with the publication of the first national report of diocesan compliance with mandated policies and practices to protect children and respond to allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Here are some key events that led up to the diocesan audits and the mandated policies and practices they assessed.


The Diocese of Lafayette, La., suspends Father Gilbert Gauthe after he admits having sexually abused at least three dozen young boys and girls. Over the next three years lawsuits against the diocese and the priest's criminal trial and conviction draw national media attention for the first time to the sexual abuse of children by priests.


Several dioceses and state Catholic conferences begin developing policies for responding to sexual abuse allegations.

At their June meeting the U.S. bishops have an extended discussion of some aspects of the problem, including presentations by a psychiatrist, a lawyer and a bishop. A few bishops are given a report by three specialists, labeled confidential, warning that the problem is of crisis proportions and could cost the Church billions of dollars.

In the fall Father Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist and one of the report's authors, mails it to all bishops who head dioceses. Although the bishops have already started addressing many of the issues at a national level through their own internal procedures and structures, several years later the report is leaked and its recommendations are cited by victims and their lawyers as evidence that the bishops were given a plan to follow in 1985 but simply ignored it.


Many dioceses establish stronger personnel policies and training programs to prevent abuse. In fall 1987 the bishops discuss the issue again at a national meeting, focusing especially on canonical issues of dealing with priests accused of abuse.

In a February 1988 statement, the general counsel of the bishops' conference declares the bishops “are deeply committed to addressing such incidents positively, to making strong efforts to prevent child abuse, to repairing whatever damage has been done and to bringing the healing ministry of the Church to bear wherever possible.”

The conference sends bishops guidelines on developing personnel policies to prevent and respond to abuse. Many bishops begin re-evaluating decisions whether to return a treated priest to ministry after therapy or what kind of ministry to permit.

While the numbers of allegations and lawsuits are growing, a new trend develops: As time goes on, more and more of the new claims concern abuse from the distant past rather than recent misconduct.


Allegations begin to mount against James Porter, a former Fall River, Mass., priest who molested children before he left the priesthood in 1974. By year's end the diocese has settled 68 lawsuits against him and he has become the most notorious clerical child moles-ter since Father Gauthe.

Following a daylong discussion of the issue behind closed doors at the bishops' June national meeting, the president of the bishops' conference issues a five-point statement summarizing principles behind the guidelines sent to dioceses four years earlier: Respond promptly to each allegation, remove the offender and provide treatment for him if an allegation is supported by evidence, report incidents in compliance with civil law and cooperate in any criminal investigation, reach out to victims and their families, and “deal as openly as possible with members of the community about this incident.”

At their November meeting the bishops discuss the issue further and a group of bishops meets with adult survivors of abuse. The bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry forms a subcommittee on sexual abuse, a think tank with nationally recognized experts on it, to make recommendations to the bishops.

The Canadian bishops issue a major study of the clerical child abuse problem in Canada and launch a nationwide effort to combat it.


The new subcommittee on sexual abuse meets for two days in St. Louis and draws up proposals for the bishops to discuss in June. It recommends the bishops form a special task group to address the many complex, interrelated issues — legal, moral, canonical, medical, therapeutic, pastoral, ministerial, administrative — surrounding clerical sexual abuse and its prevention.

Archbishop Robert Sanchez of Santa Fe, N.M., resigns following allegations of past sexual impropriety with two teen-age girls.

At their June meeting the bishops have an extended open discussion of clerical sexual abuse of minors and the conference president appoints an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse to address the issue comprehensively.

Several years of Vatican-U.S. discussions culminate in a meeting of a delegation of U.S. bishops with Vatican officials and a letter from Pope John Paul II publicly condemning sexual abuse of minors by U.S. priests.

At their November meeting the bishops petition the Vatican for U.S. exceptions to general Church law to make it easier to laicize priests who commit sex crimes against minors.

A young man with AIDS, Stephen Cook, accuses Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexually abusing him when he was a teen-ager.

Porter is sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison on multiple counts of child sexual abuse.


Cook withdraws his lawsuit against Cardinal Bernardin, admits his claims were based on “recovered memories” elicited under hypnosis by an untrained therapist. The collapse of the Bernardin case after weeks of saturation coverage makes news media more cautious about how they cover such allegations.

Pope John Paul authorizes special U.S. Church laws for next five years extending the statute of limitations on Church trials and penalties for clerics who sexually abuse minors. The age of minority for such crimes is raised from 16 years to 18 years in the United States.

A Boston priest named John Geoghan, frequently accused of inappropriate conduct with children over 32 years of priesthood, is quietly removed from all ministry, and four years later is laicized by special papal decree.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse commissions a survey of seminaries to assess their psychological screening of candidates and formation in sexuality issues.

The committee gives the bishops and media the first volume of “Restoring Trust,” a loose-bound book that includes a detailed evaluation of existing diocesan policies and recommendations for more effective policies. It also provides resources on the nature of pedophilia and possible treatments, care for abuse victims and families, sexual abuse as abuse of power, dealing with media, the role of attorneys and insurers, treatment of victims and offenders, recidivism and other topics.


The committee issues its second volume of “Restoring Trust,” with more resources to help bishops deal with various aspects of the problem.


The committee issues the third volume of “Restoring Trust,” reviewing efforts so far to address the issues more effectively at the national and diocesan levels.

Since June, inspectors looked at 11 dioceses each week.


At the committee's request, a video on boundaries issues in ministry is developed to help dioceses improve formation of Church personnel in understanding of sexuality, intimacy and interpersonal relations.

The committee is reauthorized for three more years and mandated to focus on issues of healing for victims, education and future options for priest offenders.


The bishops attend a symposium on working with victims and healing. Between 1993 and 1998 virtually all dioceses have reviewed their sexual abuse response and prevention policies and updated them in light of the resources provided by the ad hoc committee.


The Vatican extends the special U.S. legislation on clerical sexual abuse of minors for 10 more years.

The committee continues working on education and prevention issues and on diocesan policy reviews. It updates “Restoring Trust” resources and meets with victims and victim advisory groups. Representatives of the U.S. bishops share their experience with representatives of other English-speaking bishops' conferences around the world.

The Pope reserves certain especially serious Church crimes, including clerical sexual abuse of minors, to the immediate jurisdiction of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The new legislation also extends the special U.S. legislation, with slight modification, to the entire Church.


The Boston Globe begins publishing an investigative series Jan. 6 on decades of Boston archdiocesan mishandling of child abuse allegations and the priests who were accused. The most important evidence for the series is the archdiocesan personnel files on John Geoghan, released to the Globe by court order less than two weeks before Geoghan's criminal trial for child molestation.

Geoghan — accused in civil suits of imposing indecent conduct or sexual abuse on at least 130 children and now the third of the country's most notorious clerical predators — is convicted of a single crime Jan. 18 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Within a month the Globe series sparks dramatic policy changes by the Boston Archdiocese, including the removal of 10 active priests under a new “zero tolerance” policy. As the story grows with daily new revelations and as other news media across the country begin similar investigations in their dioceses, the Boston crisis quickly burgeons into a national one.

By April the U.S. cardinals are summoned to Rome for a Vatican summit. The Pope declares there is no place in ministry or religious life for anyone who would harm the young. The Vatican authorizes the U.S. bishops to propose special legislation that would bind all U.S. dioceses to adopt certain policies and practices to prevent and respond to clerical sexual abuse of minors.

Meeting in Dallas in June, the bishops adopt a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and special legal norms, subject to Vatican approval, to assure that all dioceses adhere to the charter.

A National Review Board is formed to oversee the compliance of dioceses with the charter and to commission two major national studies on the scope of the problem and its causes. A national Office for Child and Youth Protection is formed to help dioceses meet charter requirements and to assess each diocese's compliance.

Dioceses across the country begin the processes of updating their policies, establishing or modifying diocesan review boards, naming outreach coordinators and developing programs for victims and their families, forming or expanding safe environment programs and doing background checks on staff and volunteers who work with children.

In November, as a result of consultations with the Vatican on the June norms, the bishops adopt a revised version of the norms and make minor corresponding revisions in the charter.

In December Cardinal Bernard Law, faced with massive loss of confidence after nearly a year of intense scandal and controversy, resigns as archbishop of Boston.


The Pope approves the norms as law for the U.S. Church.

The Boston-based Gavin Group, composed mainly of former FBI agents, is commissioned to conduct the first independent audit of dioceses to assess whether their policies and practices are in compliance with the requirements of the charter and norms.

Beginning in June, teams of Gavin investigators inspect an average of 11 dioceses a week until they finish the job in November.


The first annual report on the diocesan compliance audits is released Jan. 6.