Called to Account: Inside the Feminist Fight to End Clergy Sex Abuse

Updated May 4, 1:30 p.m. PST:

In March 2019, Cardinal George Pell of Australia was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting two boys in 1996, and a former New Jersey priest who was accused of sexual abuse was found fatally shot in his home in what the police are treating as a homicide. 

In 2020, Australia’s highest court dismissed Pell’s conviction and he was released. In light of the news, Ms. ran a reaction piece by Zach Hiner, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network, which you can read here.

Ms. was part of the early days of breaking the silence on clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. In 1992, I reported on the abuse of Rita Milla, which began when she was a teenager in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and evolved over time to her being taken by a ring of priests to a hotel room that they rented by the hour. When I found one of those priests celebrating Mass in my own backyard at a Brooklyn parish and called the diocesan spokesperson to ask questions, I witnessed a real-time example of the church hierarchy’s modus operandi for dealing with abusive priests: He was swiftly transported to a parish in his homeland, the Philippines.

It would take another decade, until 2002, for The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team to expose the sickening extent of clergy sexual abuse of children in the Boston archdiocese and the criminal cover-up by church officials. That’s also when the country began to take note of a choir of survivors’ voices, led by an extraordinary woman, the late Barbara Blaine, who in the 1980s launched what quickly became the world’s major advocacy organization for victims: the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

In the intervening years, survivors filed and won lawsuit after lawsuit, which pried open secret church files, exposing criminal priests and the prelates who protected them. Survivors also led the charge in getting seven states and counting to temporarily lift civil statutes of limitations, allowing victims to file lawsuits, regardless of how much time had passed since their abuse.

Overall, the National Catholic Reporter estimated that the U.S. church paid out nearly $4 billion between 1950 and 2015 in costs related to the clergy sex abuse crisis. To date, an estimated 21 dioceses and religious orders have declared bankruptcy. In time, devastating reports by grand juries and attorneys general came out of Boston, New York, New Hampshire, Maine and two dioceses in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown). Evidence of the pattern of abuse and cover-up erupted worldwide, too, in news reports from the Netherlands, Ireland, Australia, Guam, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Germany, Chile, Canada and elsewhere.

But in 2018, events overtook the church hierarchy. And all hell broke loose.

The year began with Pope Francis’ ill-fated visit to Chile. The pope’s appointment of Juan Barros as bishop of Osorno in 2015 had inspired angry protests from the local Catholic community, outraged over allegations that Barros had not only covered up but personally witnessed abuse of minors by Father Fernando Karadima. Chilean and global condemnation followed, which led Francis to a complete about-face: He met with survivors, ordered an investigation, apologized for his “serious mistakes” in assessing the country’s sex abuse crisis, and then summoned all the Chilean bishops to Rome, where he accused them of destroying evidence and playing chess with abusive priests, after which every Chilean bishop offered to resign. Francis finally began to accept resignations.

From Germany this past September came a report that some 1,670 Catholic clerics, almost all priests, were found to have abused 3,677 minors from 1946 to 2014, a number the researchers deemed “a conservative estimate.” That report followed an extraordinary 17-volume 2017 Australian Royal Commission report on the sexual abuse of children in all of its institutions across denominations from 1950 to 2015. Catholic authorities reported having received claims of child sex abuse from 4,444 claimants. An Australian court ordered Australian Cardinal George Pell, appointed by Pope Francis to be his top finance minister, to stand trial on charges, which Pell denies, for his “historical sexual assault offenses.” According to press reports in December, Pell was found guilty, making him the senior most Catholic official to be convicted of child sex abuse.

From France came news that the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, would stand trial in January along with several other clerics for allegedly failing to report child sex abuse to authorities. Here at home, Catholic-watchers were shocked by the precipitous fall of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the high-profile, high-powered former archbishop of Washington, D.C., over a credible allegation of abuse of a minor and charges of years of sexual misconduct with seminarians and young priests, including two cases involving adults that resulted in financial settlements.

Before we could catch our collective breath, the Pennsylvania grand jury released its stunning report revealing credible allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests of more than 1,000 child victims, though the report asserted the actual number was likely higher, “in the thousands.” Other states immediately began to announce their own investigations—at press time, 14 and counting.

In October came blockbuster news: The U.S. Department of Justice launched the first-ever federal investigation into sex abuse and cover-up by the leaders of the Catholic Church. In November, a Boston Globe-Philadelphia Inquirer investigation found that “more than 130 U.S. bishops—or nearly one-third of those still living—have been accused … of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses,” and at least 15 “have themselves been accused of committing abuse or harassment.”

To fully understand this crisis, it is crucial to recognize that it is taking place in a church where women remain locked out of the governing structure, without voice, vote or power. Subservient and second-class, women have had little currency with the hierarchs, and this includes the mothers who came pleading for action on the abuse of their children.

Participants in women’s ordination are excommunicated, but not child rapists. While Catholic clergy promote “pro-life” causes worldwide, some have been known to impregnate underage girls and vulnerable women, including nuns— pressuring some to have abortions or requiring new mothers to sign confidentiality agreements in exchange for meager financial aid, if they get any aid at all. Today these theoretically celibate churchmen—many of whom have thwarted civil law for decades, abusing or shielding abusers—lobby tirelessly to incorporate into civil law anti-woman, anti-choice, homophobic policies that even a majority of Catholics reject.

Despite polls like the Pew Research Center’s showing that 51 percent of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances, and a Guttmacher Institute study showing that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a form of birth control (other than “natural family planning”) at some point in their lives, church leaders continue to substitute their draconian Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services for accepted medical standards, as well as the patient’s own religious and ethical beliefs, in their Catholic-owned and -affiliated health care facilities. Among the care prohibited by those health directives are contraception; condoms to prevent HIV transmission; sterilization, even if another pregnancy could be fatal; and abortion, which is “never permitted” and has been interpreted at times as forbidding termination of a pregnancy for a woman in the throes of a miscarriage, facing fever, infection and possible death, until the fetal heartbeat stops. From 2001 to 2016, the number of Catholic-owned and -affiliated acute care hospitals in the U.S. grew by 22 percent; they account for four of the top 10 largest health systems by hospital beds, which, in turn, depend on public monies (Medicare and Medicaid) to cover an average of 47 percent of patient charges.

In 2011, the USCCB put a new face on its long-standing opposition to reproductive health care and homosexuality with the creation of a Committee for Religious Liberty. Under that banner, they succeeded in pressuring the Obama administration to exclude abortion coverage from the essential benefits package of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Insisting that contraceptives and sterilization “are not ‘health’ services,” the bishops launched a full-scale attack on the ACA’s historic contraceptive mandate requiring that insurance companies cover all methods of Food and Drug Administration–approved contraception, without a deductible or copay.

If legal challenges (ongoing at press time) to the Trump administration’s new rules fail, any private, nongovernmental employer—a company, a nonprofit, a university—will be able to claim a “religious exemption” or, with the exception of publicly traded companies, a “moral exemption” to providing birth control coverage. Obama-era rules protected a woman’s right to coverage; they required both religiously affiliated nonprofit employers and, as a result of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, closely held private companies to notify insurers of their religious objection so the insurers could provide the coverage directly. The new rules have no such requirement.

In part a response to the landmark civil rights case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage (the USCCB filed an amicus brief in opposition), discrimination against same-sex couples and LGBTQ people in the name of religious liberty is taking new forms. Catholic Social Services in 2018 claimed that its constitutional right to religious freedom entitled it to a taxpayer-funded city contract to provide public foster care services, despite the fact that the agency is unwilling to comply with the city’s contract provision that prohibits discrimination based on characteristics like religion and sexual orientation. The case is being litigated with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. The USCCB is among the conservative constituencies that want to put that principle— that social service providers, for example, have both the right to discriminate and the right to public money and tax-exempt status—into federal law in the form of the First Amendment Defense Act.

Developments like this are especially concerning given the amount of government funding that goes to Catholic agencies. According to The NonProfit Times Top 100 List, in 2017 two of the top five nonprofit recipients of government funding were Catholic: The largest recipient, at $1.3 billion (the only one to break the $1 billion mark), was Catholic Charities; the other, Catholic Relief Services, received $540.6 million.

Even as Catholic Church leaders lobby for these exemptions from existing law, a 2017 Public Religion Institute poll showed that most Americans support same-sex marriage, including approximately twothirds of white and Latinx Catholics. Observing the current church-state landscape, Catholics for Choice’s vice president Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe notes, “The bishops are working to enact Catholic teaching into law because they can’t get the Catholic faithful to follow them.” Sister Jeannine Gramick, cofounder of New Ways Ministry, a leading Catholic LGBT advocacy organization, agrees. Of the new religious exemptions, she says: “They’re a smoke screen to enable people to discriminate. [People] should work politically—with their senators, representatives, locally—to prevent this kind of abuse. It’s an abuse of religion. It’s not religious freedom at all.”

Preventing the other abuse of religion—molesting children in the name of God—requires similar action. “Protecting children from sex abuse is all politics,” says Hamilton, the law professor. “If you’re interested in protecting the vulnerable, you have to hold your elected representatives to account.” She contrasts the failed response of the federal government to the clergy sex abuse crisis to the response that came after revelations of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of female gymnasts. The legislators, she says, “almost immediately had [congressional] hearings and actually passed a law very quickly,” a mandatory reporting law that applies to amateur athletic governing bodies. By contrast, she notes, “The grip of religious lobbyists in Washington and in most state capitals is so tight that women’s issues, sex abuse survivors’ issues and LGBT issues fall to the wayside.”

SNAP’s Clohessy agrees on the actions that have to be taken: “Everyone should be leaning hard on secular officials, police, prosecutors, lawmakers, AGs and say again, ‘No institution can police itself, especially not a rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy.’” As to the future, he’s hopeful, he says, “despite the bishops, not because of them.” He sees a “new level of anger among the Catholic laity. … Before 2002, many of us felt like, Where is everybody? Why is no one paying attention? Since 2002, a lot of us have felt like, Where are lay Catholics? … Where is law enforcement? Both of those groups seem to be stepping up more now… I am grateful for every single outraged Catholic and every single police officer and prosecutor who spent time on this.”

He also reports having experienced a change over time in his feelings about the heart of SNAP’s work—the work with survivors. “I went from feeling nothing but sadness every time a survivor called,” he says, “to feeling sadness mixed with satisfaction and reassurance that this person will never, ever feel as alone, this person will never, ever feel as helpless again.”

That’s because SNAP is here. Outraged Catholics, attorneys general, gay and women’s rights activists are here. And they are all watching.

This piece is excerpted from the Winter 2019 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read the rest.


Angela Bonavoglia writes on social, health and women’s issues, politics, film, TV and all things Catholic. Her essays, feature articles, investigative reports, and profiles have appeared in many venues, including Ms. (former contributing editor), the Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Salon, Newsday, the NY Daily News, Rewire, Women’s Media Center, HuffPost and Medium. Her books include The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion (foreword by Gloria Steinem), a classic oral history featuring her interviews with celebrities, authors, activists, clerics and medical providers about their experiences with abortion (1920s-1980s), and "Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church." Her essay, “Blindsided,” appears in "Grabbed: Poets and Writers on Sexual Assault, Empowerment and Healing" (foreword, Joyce Maynard; afterword, Anita Hill), to be published in October 2020. Visit her at her website or @angiebona.