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Catholic Church Sexual Abuse

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Catholic Church Sexual Abuse

Though sex abuse claims have exploded since the time period of the early 2000s, reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church date back several decades and span numerous countries throughout the world. The Church has long tried to keep allegations against accused priests silent, which has only exacerbated the problem by creating a culture of silence and acceptance among the clergy and further harmed victims by failing to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.

Even though claims against accused priests have been arising for decades, new cases continue to emerge, for in recent years child sex abuse victims have been able to seek civil and criminal charges against their abusers and the institutions that allowed the abuse.

Many states in the US have recently changed their statutes of limitations and opened look-back windows to address the sex abuse crisis within the church. These look-back windows allow victims of sexual abuse to come forward and seek compensation for their injuries regardless of how long ago the abuse happened or how old the survivors currently are.

If you have been the victim of sexual abuse by a clergy member, you may be able to seek justice. Though nothing can take away the pain that the abuser caused you, you do not have to go through the healing process alone. Contact an experienced attorney to learn about your possibility of recovery.

How prevalent is sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?

clergy sex abuse statistics

In 2002, three reporters from the Boston Globe investigated and uncovered a massive cover-up of child sex abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. Before the data and the article were published, instances of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church were seen as isolated incidents. The Globe’s initial report encouraged other victims to come forward for the first time with abuse allegations, initiating numerous lawsuits throughout the country. Revelations around sexual abuse of young children in the Catholic Church has since gained increased attention from the Church, law enforcement, and the public.

In May 2011, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice published “The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.” The independent report relied on a survey of over 10,000 allegations to detail the types of abuse, the data about victims and abusers, and the diocesan awareness of the sexual abuse issues.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in 2018, detailing an 18-month-long investigation into six of the state’s dioceses. The investigation identified thousands of alleged victims and over 300 alleged perpetrators throughout the state and uncovered proof that church leaders knew about the abuse and hid it for decades.

These investigations around a devastating topic document the horrifying reality of what has happened in Catholic Churches throughout the world and the Church’s lack of effort to address and remedy the issue. Below are some clergy sexual abuse statistics in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century:

  • Child sexual abuse allegations were made against 4,392 priests, totaling about 4% of all Catholic priests.
  • Only 2% of those accused priests received prison sentences.
  • Almost 48% of those accused priests in the US had two or more allegations made against them—it was not the first time these men of the parish were accused.
  • About 80% of the victims sexually abused by clergy members were male.
  • About 22% of clergy sexual abuse victims were ten years old or younger at the time of the abuse.

Sexual abuse by clergy members and other church officials is not a problem unique to the United States. Allegations of sexual abuse and abuse cover-ups have arisen in several other countries, including Europe, South America, and Australia. Some examples are:

  • Australia — A four-year investigation revealed that more than 4,400 individuals were abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions during a thirty-five-year time period. The Royal Commission found sexual abuse allegations against 7% of Catholic priests in Australia in the 60 years between 1950 and 2010.
  • Chile — Prosecutors in Chile have initiated over 100 investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by priests since 2018.
  • Germany — Reports have shown that at least 1,670 clergy members abused more than 3,600 individuals during a 70-year period. Approximately 63% of the victims were male, and almost 67% were younger than fourteen years old.
  • Ireland — Four reports into the Catholic Church’s failure to properly deal with abusive clergy showed that tens of thousands of children were victims of sexual and non-sexual abuse in Catholic institutions and that many Irish bishops, instead of reporting instances of sexual abuse, simply relocated the abusers to various parishes throughout Ireland, the US, and Australia.

Who are the perpetrators?

The perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are predominantly priests who have close access to children. However, there have been instances of abuse by bishops, cardinals, church officials, and other employees of individuals dioceses, such as youth group leaders or teachers of a Catholic boarding school.

Herman Law’s Predator Priest Index allows you to check for priests in various U.S. states that have been credibly accused of abuse. 

Major Cases of Catholic Church Sexual Abuse

Since the 1980s, there have been several high-profile cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States, usually involving multiple victims and sometimes cover-ups by the dioceses in which they served.

  • Gilbert Gauthe, a former Catholic priest from Louisiana, confessed to sexually abusing 37 children, though the actual number is believed to surpass 100. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison and only served ten years, but was later convicted in Texas for sexually abusing another young boy.
  • John Geoghan, a former priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, faced criminal prosecution for sexually abusing more than 130 boys. The 2002 Boston Globe investigation uncovered church leaders’ knowledge and cover-up of the abuse. He was sentenced to 9-10 years in prison and died while incarcerated.
  • Rudolph Kos, a former Catholic priest, was accused of sexually abusing several altar boys throughout the Diocese of Dallas. A $120 million jury verdict was awarded to 11 victims and their families, and the diocese later paid another $23.4 million settlement on additional claims of abuse by Kos. He was sentenced to life in prison.
  • Washington, D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned in 2018 after being accused of abuse and attempted rape. A report released in 2020 revealed that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican city state knew of the sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick but failed to act.
  • James Porter, a former Catholic priest in various dioceses in Massachusetts, was accused of and pled guilty to sexually abusing 28 children. However, he later admitted to abusing more than 100 children in one diocese alone. He was sentenced to 18-20 years in prison and died in 2005.
  • Paul Shanley, a former Boston priest well-known for counseling troubled youth, was stripped of his ministerial rights by the Vatican after being the subject of numerous sexual abuse allegations and sentenced to 12-15 years in prison. He died last year, in November 2020.
  • Urbano Vazquez, a former Catholic priest in Washington, D.C., faced a 15-year prison sentence in 2019 for sexually abusing two young women.

Child Sexual Abuse In The Catholic Church

For many years, the Catholic Church and many church authorities sought to cover up child sexual abuse at the hands of priests. A tight veil of secrecy kept allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church out of public discussions and awareness. Because religious institutions have their own hierarchies, they had near-complete control over handling abuse allegations. Church leaders were typically made aware of pedophile priests in their parishes and church communities. Instead of addressing the abuses, they swept them under the rug. A common strategy was simply transferring the accused priest to another parish or district, hoping the allegations would dissipate. In nearly all cases, the priests continued to sexually abuse clergy members at their new parishes, and with each newly reported allegation, another reassignment occurred.
Church leaders never filed criminal complaints with local law enforcement nor took any tangible steps to hold these individuals accountable for their actions. If another priest or clergy member reported clergy misconduct, these individuals were frequently threatened with transfers to overseas missionary programs if they did not keep quiet. The Church’s long-accepted and employed strategy of covering up clergy abuse worked well because many victims and their families could be intimidated or shamed into silence. As documented by the Boston Globe, abusers frequently targeted victims from vulnerable families, whom the abuser and those covering for them could easily manipulate into remaining silent for fear of retaliation or mistreatment in the local church community.
If reports of clergy abuse managed to slip out from under the Catholic Church’s wall of secrecy, the cases settled quickly, and in return, the Church demanded non-disclosure agreements. The Church allowed the clergy members to remain despite their sexual misconduct, leading many to promote within the Church hierarchy to bishop, monsignor, or cardinal positions. The cycle of secrecy thus continued.
In 2002, the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, more commonly known as the Dallas Charter. Local districts took charge of the implementation of prevention programs resulting in inconsistent and flawed policies. As a result, clergy sexual abuse continues to be pervasive within the Catholic Church.

Why is child sex abuse so common in the Catholic Church?

Studies throughout the years have found several potential causes for child abuse and child sex abuse cases. However, there is no one reason why child sexual abuse by clergy member or other Church authorities happens — causes vary between individual offenders. Child abusers inside the Catholic Church were able to flourish for various reasons. Without independent investigations, church authorities allowed their Catholic clergy members to take advantage of their power and supposed moral authority. Other factors that allowed so many cases of sexual abuse of minors to happen include:

  • Secrecy and Cover-ups — Reports have found that many dioceses covered up allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the past. The culture of secrecy has led to many offenders simply being transferred to another parish or diocese, which only served to perpetuate the abuse.
  • Clerical celibacy — Modern clergy members are expected to be both unmarried and to abstain from sex. Some theorists believe that this life of celibacy contributes to clerical abuse by creating a “morally superior” status among abusive priests. Others believe that priests’ sexuality stops changing upon beginning celibacy, which often starts in their adolescent — critics suggest this is why most victims are pre-adolescents.
  • Impact of psychology from previous decades — Decades ago, when much of the alleged sexual abuse initially occurred, it was believed that individuals could easily be cured of sexually abusive behavior towards children, and it became a common practice to “treat” the offenders and then return them to their parish positions.
  • Pedophilia and Ephebophilia — A 2008 study found that approximately 6% of clerical abusers are pedophiles (those who target pre-pubescent children), and approximately 32% are ephebophiles (those who target pre-adolescents and teenagers). However, many offenders and accused priests do not fall strictly into either category.
  • Seminary training — Many clergy members have suggested that they were not adequately prepared to lead a celibate life through their training in the seminary.
  • Male-dominated Church culture — Some theorists believe that a greater female presence in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church may have prevented widespread sexual abuse. They may have advocated for stronger safety measures in meetings such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Most importantly, the Church’s failure to respond immediately and appropriately to allegations dating back several decades has perpetuated a culture of silence and acceptance. Church leadership has repeatedly:

  • Denied instances of sexual abuse,
  • Failed to act to prevent current and future acts of abuse,
  • Failed to remove sex offenders from the Church and instead transferred them to other parishes,
  • Failed to report instances of sexual misconduct to the police,
  • Failed to record and maintain evidence of abuse within the dioceses accurately,
  • Hid information about sexual abuse from the public, and
  • Encouraged secrecy among bishops with knowledge of sexual abuse within their diocese. This is particularly pronounced in the Boston and Pennsylvania cases detailed by the Globe and the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, we want to help. Contact us confidentially today.

How has the Church responded to the allegations of sexual abuse?

For decades, many dioceses have covered up allegations of sexual abuse by failing to report the behavior to law enforcement, paying undisclosed settlements to victims, and transferring offending clergy members to different parishes and dioceses. Following the Boston Globe article in 2002, Church officials has been pushed to address previous abuse and work toward ending abuse in the future. In doing so, the Vatican has attempted to take steps toward increasing the awareness and transparency of the issue and abolishing sexual abuse by the clergy:

  • 2003 Vatican Conference on Sexual Abuse — The Vatican organized a three-day conference where they brought in a panel of non-Catholic psychiatric experts. This panel discussed various factors that had been determined to contribute to widespread sexual abuse issues, including an overemphasis on avoiding a public scandal.
  • Communis Vita — In March 2019, Pope Francis issued the Communis Vita, a letter amending traditional religious law to allow for the removal of a clergy member who has strayed from or otherwise abandoned their religious community for a period of 12 months. To be legally effective, any dismissal must be confirmed by the Pope.
  • Holy See Response — After the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Holy See, the governing body of the Vatican, released a statement condemning sexual abuse of children.
  • 2020 Vatican Report on Theodore McCarrick — The internal investigation took two years and uncovered numerous instances in which bishops and other Church officials, including Pope John Paul II, dismissed or denied allegations that McCarrick had sexually abused children during his time in the clergy. Despite these sex abuse allegations, Theodore McCarrick was still able to rise through the Church’s ranks, first appointed Archbishop of Washington, D.C., by Pope John Paul II, and then promoted to cardinal. Although the report was a significant step towards transparency and accountability, it is unclear whether that trend will continue.

Papal responses to allegations of abuse over the years have been mixed and, sometimes, underwhelming:

  • Pope John Paul II has recently been criticized for failing to act on reports of sexual abuse within the Church and for his support of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, despite an investigation into sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick. However, he maintained that those who harm children have no place in the priesthood.
  • Pope Benedict XVI attempted to push investigations into sexual abuse. Also, he was the first Pope to remove offending priests from Church service, though critics says he did not do enough in light of his predecessor’s failure to act.
  • Pope Francis has pledged to end sexual abuse in the Catholic Church after commissioning and receiving the report of a 2020 Vatican investigation into allegations against the ex-Cardinal. In 2019, Pope Francis also abolished the Church’s long-standing policy of shielding priests from law enforcement. However, reporting abuse is still not required of the clergy.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also taken steps to remedy past wrongs and prevent new occurrences through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Published in 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops provides guidelines for holding clergy members accountable, maintaining a safe environment for children, and effectively responding to allegations of abuse through discipline and prompt reporting of incidents.

Individual bishops have primarily handled abuse allegations within dioceses and, as mentioned herein, have often been inappropriate and inadequate. In more recent decades, however, dioceses have been more active in removing offending priests from service and stripping them of their clerical rights.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently voted to implement a third-party system for reporting abuses against bishops. The system would allow people to report abuse online or via a toll-free phone number. The system was designed to follow Pope Francis’ guidance that dioceses establish a public and easily accessible system for reports of abuse to be submitted. Reports sent in through the system are then transferred to higher authorities for review and action.

The Episcopal Church has also come forward to address its role in past sexual misconduct allegations in the religious community. In an attempt to remedy those wrongs, the Episcopal Church has instituted a strict policy focused on openness, accountability, and discipline. Dioceses are also required to notify their congregants of sexual misconduct by the clergy as well as make the offenders names public knowledge.

Timeline of Church Sex Abuse Scandals


After the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé on widespread abuse and cover-ups by the Boston Archdiocese, thousands of abuse victims across the country came forward with claims. The Catholic Church has paid approximately $4 billion in compensation to survivors to date.

In the 1990s:

  • The Diocese of Dallas, Texas, paid $30.9 million to 12 victims in 1998.

In the 2000s:

  • The Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, paid $25.7 million to 240 victims in 2003.
  • The Archdiocese of Boston, Massachusetts, paid $85 million to 552 victims in 2003.
  • The Diocese of Orange, California, paid $100 million to 87 victims in 2004.
  • The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, paid $60 million to 45 victims in 2006.
  • The Diocese of San Diego, California, paid $198.1 million to 144 victims in 2007.
  • The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, paid $660 million to over 500 victims in 2007.
  • The Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado, paid $5.5 million to 18 victims in 2008.
  • The Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, paid $2 million to a single victim in 2009.
  • The Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, paid $4.24 million to a single victim in 2009.

From 2018 to present:

  • The Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, paid $27.5 million to 4 victims in 2018.
  • The Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, settled for $5 million with 15 victims in 2019.
  • The Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, agreed to pay a $6.3 million settlement to over 50 victims in 2020.

Between 2004 and 2020, over 25 dioceses have filed for bankruptcy throughout the United States.

In Alaska:

  • 2008: The Diocese of Fairbanks filed for bankruptcy as a result of 130 lawsuits alleging abuse dating back to the 1950s.

In Arizona:

  • 2004: The Diocese of Tucson filed for bankruptcy and later agreed to a $22.2 million settlement.

In California:

  • 2007: The Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy right before the court was set to hear 150 lawsuits against it.
  • 2014: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Stockton filed for bankruptcy, later agreeing to pay $15 million to sex abuse victims.

In Delaware:

  • 2009: The Diocese of Wilmington filed for bankruptcy on the eve of trial for the first of several lawsuits.

In Guam:

  • 2019: The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Agaña filed for bankruptcy.

In Iowa:

  • 2006: The Diocese of Davenport filed for bankruptcy due to claims against Bishop Lawrence Soens, alleging that he sexually abused 15 students while employed at Regina Catholic High School in the 1960s.

In Louisiana:

In Minnesota:

  • 2015: The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy.
  • 2015: The Diocese of Duluth filed for bankruptcy.
  • 2017: The Diocese of New Ulm filed for bankruptcy due to several sex abuse lawsuits.
  • 2018: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Winona-Rochester filed for bankruptcy because of ongoing sex abuse lawsuits.
  • 2019: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud filed for bankruptcy and later agreed to pay $22.5 million to 70 sexual abuse victims.

In Montana:

  • 2014: The Diocese of Helena filed for bankruptcy due to over 360 claims of abuse.
  • 2017: The Diocese of Great Falls-Billings filed for bankruptcy.

In New Jersey:

  • 2020: The Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, filed for bankruptcy because of ongoing lawsuits.

In New Mexico:

  • 2013: The Diocese of Gallup filed for bankruptcy.
  • 2018: The Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed for bankruptcy as a result of almost 400 cases of sex abuse.

In New York:

  • 2019: The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, New York, filed for bankruptcy.
  • February 2020: The Diocese of Buffalo filed for bankruptcy.
  • June 2020: The Diocese of Syracuse filed for bankruptcy due to hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits.
  • October 2020: The Diocese of Rockville Center filed for bankruptcy with over 200 sexual abuse lawsuits.

In Oregon:

  • 2004: The Archdiocese of Portland filed for bankruptcy due to impending trials on sex abuse claims. It was the first time a diocese filed. The archdiocese had already settled over a hundred claims totaling $53 million at that point.

In Pennsylvania:

  • 2020: The Diocese of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy due to claims that came to light in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report.

In Washington:

  • 2004: The Diocese of Spokane filed for bankruptcy and later agreed to pay $48 million to sexual abuse victims.

In Wisconsin:

  • 2011: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy when a planned settlement for 23 sexual abuse lawsuits fell through. The archdiocese had already paid almost $30 million to settle 200 cases in the two decades prior.

Many U.S. priests accused of sexual abuse were forced to resign. There are several instances of those higher up in the Church hierarchy, in the U.S. and abroad, who resigned after facing personal allegations of abuse or after it was revealed that they had brushed aside or hid sexual abuse by clergy members under their supervision.

  • Boston Cardinal Bernard Francis Law resigned in 2002 after news that he had covered up sexual abuse committed by Boston priests.
  • Palm Beach Bishops Joseph Symons and Anthony O’Connell also resigned in 2002 amid allegations of child sexual abuse.
  • Chilean Bishops Juan Barros Madrid, Horacio Valenzuela, Alejandro Goić Karmelić, Carlos Pellegrín, and Cristián Contreras Molina resigned in 2018 amid sexual abuse allegations and a cover-up scandal.
  • French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin resigned in 2020 after failing to report sexual abuse committed by a priest under his supervision.
  • Honduran Bishop Juan Jose Pineda resigned in 2018 following allegations of sexual abuse.
  • Polish Bishop Edward Janiak resigned in 2020 after he was found to have shielded priests who had committed sexual abuse from authorities.

How have state legislatures responded to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals?

Many states, including New York and California, have recently updated their statutes of limitations to allow victims additional opportunities to seek compensation. Current statutes of limitations include:

  • New York — Under the 2019 New York Child Victims Act, criminal suits for child sexual abuse can be brought forth until the victim’s 23rd birthday. Civil lawsuits can be brought forth until the victim’s 55th birthday.
  • Florida — Florida does not have a statute of limitations for claims of sexual battery involving an individual under 16 years old. Civil claims of child sexual abuse must be filed within seven years from the child turning 18 or within four years from discovering an injury that was caused by the sexual abuse.
  • California — There is no statute of limitations for criminal claims of child sexual abuse in California. In 2019, Governor Newsom signed Assembly Bill 218, which placed the statute of limitations for civil claims of child sexual abuse at age 40 (22 years after the child reaches age 18) or five years after the discovery of an injury resulting from the abuse.

For past victims who would have been able to file under the new law, states sometimes institute look-back windows to allow them time to file. Look-back windows are periods generally between one and three years in which victims of child sexual abuse can file their expired claims under the new statute of limitations, regardless of how long ago they suffered the abuse.

Eight states (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Vermont) and Washington, D.C., have implemented look-back windows for victims of sexual abuse.

Reference our State by State Statutes of Limitations Guide for more information. 

How much compensation can I receive if I was abused in the Catholic Church?

The compensation varies on a case-by-case basis and will often depend on several factors, including:

  • The extent of the abuse, including the severity and the duration of the conduct.
  • The victim’s age — recovery may be different if the victim were a minor or an adult at the time of the abuse.
  • Cost of treatment — this can include treatment for physical trauma as well as costs for therapy, prescription medications, or other rehabilitative measures.
  • Loss of income or future earning capacity due to disability — this may be a result of physical disability or emotional trauma from the abuse.
  • Other pain and suffering.

What should I do if a Catholic Church member sexually abused me?

Experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a clergy member can cause feelings of fear, shame, or guilt. If a clergy member has sexually abused you, there are essential steps you can take toward recovery:

  • Report the abuse to local law enforcement and civil authorities, as well as the diocese where it happened by contacting a victim assistant coordinator. If the abuse was by a bishop, you can also contact the Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting Service.
  • Speak with someone you trust about what happened, how you feel, and what you may need.
  • Seek out a mental health professional who can help you navigate the psychological effects of your trauma.
  • If possible, gather any communications, photographs, or other evidence you may have.
  • Find an advocate who is familiar with clergy sexual abuse allegations to help you seek compensation.

If you have been the victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic Church member or other religious order, contact Herman Law to learn about your rights and the possibility of recovery.

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, we want to help. Contact us confidentially today.