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Modern History of Clergy Abuse

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Sexual abuse includes any words or actions which are designed to gratify the abuser’s desires at the expense of the survivor’s self-esteem. Such abuse is especially common in unequal relationships, like clergy-parishioner and teacher-student.

Legally, the institution which employs the abuser is usually responsible for damages. In clergy abuse cases, the Catholic Church is usually responsible if the Church either knew or should have known that the clergy member had issues in this area.

Due to the status difference between survivor and abuser, as well as the Church’s unwillingness to intervene, an Orange County clergy abuse attorney may be able to obtain substantial compensation in these cases. In addition to compensatory damages for medical bills and emotional distress, many Orange County jurors award substantial punitive damages in these cases.

15th Century

In the mid 1490s, Katharina von Zimmern and her sister, who were both teenagers, went to live at a monastery in Zurich. Details are hazy, but it is clear that priests molested the two girls at the monastery, so they returned to the family home in Germany. Perhaps not surprisingly, Katharina went on to be a leader of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th century. Some of her scandalous endeavors included translating the Bible into German and allowing civil authorities access to the expansive Church lands in Zurich.

Katharina and her sister may have been the first documented Church sexual abuse survivors. Unfortunately, they were by no means the last ones. For several hundred years, sporadic reports continued. Then, things took a turn for the worse.

19th Century

In 1848, several political revolutions upset the traditional power systems in Europe. There were uprisings in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Austria, Belgium, and many other countries. At first, the rebel groups succeeded. But they could not hold power, and by 1851, most European autocrats were back in power.

Pope Pius IX was in power at the time. He is remembered as one of the most important, and most controversial, Popes in history. Pius reacted to the wave of revolutions by insulating the Church from the outside world. That move may have created a culture which allowed sexual abuse to continue unfettered. Since the Church essentially answered to no civil authority at the time, some clergy felt they could take advantage of parishioners without consequences.

20th Century

In 1984, Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana bishop, was the first American Roman Catholic priest to face sex abuse charges. He pleaded guilty to abusing thirty-seven minors over the course of his tenure in Lafayette. He served ten years of a twenty year prison sentence. Shortly after his release and relocation to Texas, he received probation for an injury to a child conviction. Later, he served some time in prison for violating Texas’ sex offender registration requirements.

The Gauthe case took the abuse issue to the next level. What started as isolated incidents and soon became ingrained in the Church’s culture now became something to hide from civil authorities. The Catholic Church may have known about the issues with Gauthe in the early 1980s, yet Church officials did nothing to protect victims.

21st Century

In 2002, the Boston Globe printed a story detailing extensive sexual abuse of minors and the Church’s attempts to cover up these issues. The Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.

Most recently, in 2018, a Philadelphia grand jury released a 900-page report detailing over 1,000 cases of sexual abuse dating back to the 1940s. Additionally, grand jurors alleged, the cover-ups went to some of the highest offices in the American Catholic Church. 

These two cases combine both overt acts and official cover-up. 

Connect with a Compassionate Lawyer

Clergy sexual abuse has a long and inglorious history. Contact DiMarco | Araujo | Montevideo for a free consultation with an experienced injury attorney in Orange County. After-hours visits are available.