Spotlight - Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

I grew up in a large Catholic family (2nd oldest of 11) in Massachusetts, just south of Boston in the 80s and 90s. Me, along with my 7 brothers were altar servers. I have served Mass for the infamous Cardinal Arnold Law and even had coffee with him in a small group. Growing up, I didn't know anything about the sex abuse scandals that were happening in my back yard until the news broke in 2002. I was (and still am) embarrassed and ashamed of these horrific events! 

What the Catholic Church did, and how they handled it was absolutely unacceptable and terrible. I don't mind the persecution I receive for being Catholic (my leader was persecuted to His death) and I think much of it is deserved and self inflicted. There is no denying the horrible things done by members of the Catholic Church throughout its 2000 year history. My hope with this blog is to share my perspective as a Catholic Christian sinner. 

Although the super popular movie "Spotlight" came out in 2015, I just recently watched it. I actually enjoyed it and thought it was well done. It didn't have too many ridiculous conspiracy theories (like the Dan Brown novels) and it did a good job of shedding light on the history and truth of the Catholic Sex Scandals in Boston, MA and how the massive story broke in 2002.

The fascination from the Spotlight movie led me to share my perspective which comes with deep and thorough soul searching and research. This is a sensitive and passionate topic. We all may have particular beliefs and perspectives about the causes, contexts, nature, and scope of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but we should be informed by empirical quality data and reason.


When looking back at the horrific abuses, it is tough to understand the environment within which these occurred since the world is very different today. The 2nd Vatican Council took place from 1961-1965 and caused a lot of change and confusion within the Catholic Church at the time. From this confusion arose much dissension amongst Catholic leaders along with an idea about "the spirit of Vatican II". This "spirit of Vatican II" was very vague, subjective and often used to ignore the teachings from the Council and interpret things however one saw fit. Combining the confusion from the Council, rebelion from Catholic leaders, the sexual revolution of the 60s ramping up and the traditional Christian mentality of the time, a lot of chaos was found within the Church. There were seminaries that were teaching heresies and some became a safe haven for homosexual men who flocked there after feeling rejected by their Christian environment (about 25% of seminarians had homosexual orientation - see resources below). 

Poor background checks, bad leadership, unorthodox seminaries and questionable formation led to produce some bad priests. These bad priests did bad things; but lets be clear about what that was since there are still many myths and bias hysteria surrounding this sensitive topic...

There is not a pedophilia problem in the Catholic Church! 

80% of the victims were post pubescent boys - teenage boys. 100% of the perpetrators were men and most of these men were attracted to other men and boys. Gay men assaulting boys played a major role in the scandal. I say this as a fact and not out of condemnation on men struggling with same sex attraction. Being gay does not make one more likely to commit a crime. However, being a gay man working closely in an environment with other men and boys creates an increased risk of sexual abuse.

Bishop Morlino (of Madison Wisconson) says, “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord. The sex abuse crisis has continued, he says, because the modern Church has become too comfortable with sin in her teaching and practice. For too long we have diminished the reality of sin – we have refused to call a sin a sin – and we have excused sin in the name of a mistaken notion of mercy, In our efforts to be open to the world we have become all too willing to abandon the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Environment is also why we see such high rates of sexual abuse in the education system (much higher than with clergy). Teachers with authority are working closely with teenagers and sadly abuse their authority and act out on their sexual desires. 

There are bad apples in the Church, just like everywhere else. 

The comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, as well as several other recent studies report: from 1950-2000, 4% of Catholic priests in the U.S. sexually victimized minors (consistent with the rates in other religious traditions). Although these stories are horrific to hear, they are almost never about incidents that have occurred since the late 1980s. Incidents of abuse in the past 25 years are quite rare. While the rate of sexual abuse has dropped significantly amongst Catholic clergy, sexual victimization is tragically common in the general population (research states that over 20% of American women and about 15% of American men were sexually violated by an adult when they were children). 

Sexual Abuse is not "Sola Catolica": The 3 insurance companies that represent most protestant churches claims they receive 260+ reports per year from clergy abuse on their minors. The numbers are higher for non-religious groups such as Boy Scouts, Sports Teams, Universities, Media, Entertainment and Government. Sexual abuse is not just a Catholic problem, but a societal problem. 

"Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." We see major sex scandals across all religious denominations - often by leadership at the highest positions. I think of televangelists or other Christian leaders like Jimmy Swagger, Jim Baker and Ted Haggar. Sexual scandals by influencers like Bill Cosby, Bob Marley, Bill Clinton and even Martin Luther King JR. Religious founders cannot escape scrutiny either. Islam's founder, Muhammed, had 13 wives, some were very young like Aisha whom he married when she was just 7 years old and consummated the marriage when she was 9. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, is said to have had an unquenchable sexual appetite accompanied by 25-40 wives. 

Should Catholic priests be held to a higher standard? YES! Absolutely! I think this factors into why there is so much hysteria surrounding sexual abuse in the priesthood. Priests are moral authorities instructing and teaching us how to live the moral and spiritual life. Since most people disagree with the Church's teachings on sexual morality (masturbation, homosexuality, contraception, divorce, abortion and pre-marital sex), the media jumps on the opportunity to point out the shameful hypocrisy. Scandal in the priesthood can also serve as an excuse and justify why we disregard the teachings that claim to be directly from God (through the Church Jesus established) and guided by the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus hand selected the leaders for His Church and He chose Judas, who eventually betrayed Jesus, having Him captured and killed. Jesus selected Peter, the Rock, to lead His Church and He later called Peter "Satan" (Matthew 16:23). Since the members of the Church are sinful humans, just like the rest of us, they also have shortcomings, struggles and failures. The Church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners. "So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." - Matthew 23:3. We can not and must not put our trust in Men, but in Jesus Christ and His promises. 


We should hold the leaders of the Church to a higher standard while understanding that they might fall. Extensive evaluations, background checks, protocols and safeguards must continue to be strictly enforced. The sexual crimes committed by church leaders should be punished to the full extent of the law. It is horrific, shameful and unacceptable. What is more awful is when the leadership is aware of what is happening and does nothing. To me, this was the worst part of the Boston abuse scandals; how the Cardinal was aware of what was going on and he didn't do anything to stop it. At times, the sins in the Church make me embarrassed to be a member; then I look in the mirror and see the log in my own eye. I place my trust in God, lean on Him and remember Jesus' promise that "the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church." (Matthew 16:18) I believe that the scandal of its members is the strongest argument against Catholicism and I sympathize with those who leave the Church because of it. If I found a church with perfect members I would be very attracted to it, but unable to join since it would then become imperfect the moment I set foot through the doors. 

As a Catholic who grew up in the Boston area, I am truly sorry for the inexcusable abuses by leaders of the Catholic Church. I know that the Church has moved on from some of the awful sins of its past. I also know that members and leaders within the Church will sin again in the future. I have not left the Catholic Church because my membership is not dependent on the Holiness of its members. To the few bad priests, I pray that they repent, receive help, amend their life and surrender to the Gospel. To the countless good, holy priests, continue to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and serve His bride. I have tremendous respect for priests who embrace a life of service and sacrifice despite being mislabeled by society. Thank you to the good and holy men of God in service of Him and His Kingdom! 

"Oh you silly little man, you are trying to do what 17 centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do." - Pope Pious VII, when captured by Napoleon (trying to destroy the Catholic Church) 

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." - John 6:68


Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP

Six Myths About Clergy Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church

Books: Sin against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church

Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests. 

John Jay University Study: