Centuries-Old Knowledge of Church Sex Abuse

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Los Angeles Times (June 20 2004):

Facing an estimated 800 sexual-abuse lawsuits in California, Roman Catholic officials have argued that the church learned only in recent years that it had a widespread problem with priests molesting children.

A report in February by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other bishops didn't realize until 1985 that sexual abuse by clergy was"more than a matter of tragic but isolated incidents."

But a North Carolina priest and two former monks who live in Southern California say they have scoured ancient Vatican records and forgotten Latin texts to show just the opposite: that the church has recognized the problem of abuse by priests for at least 1,700 years and has failed to address it successfully.

"The contention that the present scandal is isolated to this era is completely debunked by the Roman Catholic Church's own documents," concluded Father Thomas P. Doyle and former monks Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall in their 375-page report,"Canonical History of Clerical Sexual Abuse." The authors finished the report last month and are looking for a publisher.

Doyle, now a retired military chaplain, co-wrote a seminal report to U.S. bishops in 1985, warning of problems with abusive priests. Sipe counseled hundreds of abusive priests before he left the clergy. Wall, who heard molestation cases against priests when he served on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis tribunal council, now works for a plaintiff's attorney.

Church defenders, pointing out that the three authors are allied with or paid by lawyers representing molestation plaintiffs, charge that the report is a ploy to strengthen their hand in court.

"Follow the money," said Peter Michael Callahan, an attorney representing the Diocese of Orange."What's their motivation? They are professional witnesses who have a position to sell. It's not exactly impartial scholarship."

But the three men say the documents prove that the Catholic Church has known for centuries about molesters in its ranks and has no excuse for failing to take the danger to children seriously until scandal engulfed the church in 2002.

For example, in the 4th century, St. Basil of Caesarea set up a detailed system of punishment to deal with clerics at his monastery who molested boys. Perpetrators were to be flogged and put in chains for six months; they were never again allowed unsupervised interaction with minors.

In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX added to church law a declaration that sexual abuse demanded expulsion from the priesthood and that perpetrators would be turned over to secular authorities.

"Canonical History" lists 58 high-level documents dealing with sexual misconduct of the clergy -- from books by saints to papal decrees to declarations by church councils -- as evidence....

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