Beginning in the mid-1980s, a series of court cases began to reveal the extent of sexual abuse committed by clergy in various religious contexts. Although the popular press has tended to associate the clergy abuse scandals as a “Catholic” issue, in fact, the problem is widespread in many religious contexts, including non-Christian religions as well. Although the focus here is on the crisis in the American Catholic Church, in 1990, a survey conducted by the Center for Ethics and Social Policy at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, discovered that 10 percent of clergy from across many Protestant Christian denominations that were surveyed said that they had been sexually active with an adult parishioner (“Clergy and Sexuality” 1990). It is believed that sexual abuse among rabbis approximates that found in the Protestant clergy. According to one study, 73 percent of women rabbis report instances of sexual harassment (Shaefer 2003). Sadly, an attempt at damage control has kept things quiet. Fear of lawsuits and bad publicity have dictated an atmosphere of hushed voices and outrage against those who dare to break ranks by speaking out.
In the 1990s, information started to become public about sexual abuse of children in Hare Krishna–movement schools of the 1970s and 1980s.
As universal as the problem of religious leaders and personnel sexually abusing the faithful is in the United States, the problem became most widely known (perhaps unfairly) when it was connected to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, about 4 percent of the Catholic clergy that served between 1950 and 2002 sexually molested minors. Statistically, that is about average for the U.S. population in general.
I. The Catholic Church Faces a Crisis
II. The Bishops’ Response
III. The Scandal Breaks
IV. The Dallas Meeting
V. The Scope of the Problem
VI. Developing Safe Environments
VII. Developments after 2002
VIII. Is This Largely a “Catholic Problem”?
A. Why Do Priests Sexually Abuse Minors?
B. Why Are the Victims Mostly Boys?
C. Why Wasn’t the Abuse Reported by Church Officials?
D. Why Did Bishops Allow the Abuse to Continue?
E. Why Didn’t Parents Force the Issue?
F. Why Did It Take So Long for the Victims to Come Forward?
G. Are Children Safe in Church?
IX. Church Scandals: Who Is Punished for Church Scandals?
The Catholic Church Faces a Crisis
On October 18, 1984, a grand jury in Louisiana returned a 34-count criminal indictment against Gilbert Gauthe, a Catholic priest of the diocese of Lafayette. The charges included 11 counts of aggravated crimes against nature, 11 counts of committing sexually immoral acts with minors, 11 counts of taking pornographic photographs of juveniles, and a single count of aggravated rape, sodomizing a child under the age of 12. In an arrangement with prosecutors, Gauthe pled guilty to multiple counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The family of one of the victims sued the diocese of Lafayette and was awarded $1.25 million. It was the first time in history that details of a Catholic priest’s sexual abuse of children was brought to the public’s attention, and it marked the beginning of what became the most horrifying and damaging scandal ever to hit the Catholic Church in the United States.
The year following Gauthe’s conviction, his attorney, Raymond Mouton, along with Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer on the staff of the Vatican’s representative to the United States, and Fr. Michael Peterson, president of St. Luke’s Institute, a resident treatment facility for troubled clergy, prepared a 100-page report titled The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner. The report was presented to the Committee on Research and Pastoral Practices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference (NCCB/USCC). The committee was headed by the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law. Every diocesan bishop in the United States received a copy of the report.
After studying the document, the NCCB/USCC committee concluded that the issues raised by the report and the report’s recommendations had been adequately addressed by the bishops’ conference, and no further action on the report was taken. The task of responding to allegations of sexual abuse by clergy was therefore left up to the individual dioceses.
The Bishops’ Response
For the next 15 years, the NCCB/USCC (in 2001, the conference was renamed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB) continued to study the problem. In 1993, the conference formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse to make recommendations to the dioceses. These recommendations included:
- Dealing effectively with priests who sexually abuse minors and others. The committee sought to assist with diocesan policies, evaluate treatment centers, provide education through topical articles by competent authors, and act as a clearinghouse in related matters.
- Assisting victims and survivors. The committee provided articles focused on victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, along with a special section in the report on diocesan policies, and met with representatives of various national organizations and with individual victims/survivors. It also developed a 42- page article entitled “Responding to Victims-Survivors.”
- Addressing morale of bishops and priests. The committee provided focal points to deal with criticism and presented regular reports to bishops to help deal effectively with allegations of clergy sexual misconduct. It also urged the Committees for Bishops’ Life and Ministry and Priestly Life and Ministry, the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, and the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy to address this concern.
- Screening candidates for ministry. Working with the Committee on Priestly Formation and the National Catholic Educational Association, the committee surveyed seminaries on psychological screening and formation of candidates for ordination, focusing on issues of sexuality. Twenty-nine of 36 diocesan seminaries and 24 out of 42 college seminaries responded. They reported varying levels of psychological screening and formation of candidates. The committee proposed specific goals for consideration by the conference.
- Assisting bishops in assessing possible reassignment. The issue of reassigning offending clergy to nonparish ministry remained unresolved due to canon laws protecting the rights of clergy. (USCCB 2002).
In 1997, a jury awarded 11 plaintiff s $119.6 million in a record judgment against the diocese of Dallas, Texas. Later that same year, the diocese settled another sexual abuse lawsuit, agreeing to pay five victims $5 million. The following year, the diocese agreed to pay $23.4 million to eight former altar boys and the family of a ninth, who say they were sexually victimized by a priest, Rudolph Kos, who was subsequently removed from the priesthood by the Vatican and is serving a life sentence in prison. Still, the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal in the United States remained a sleeping giant.
The Scandal Breaks
On January 6, 2002, the Boston Globe launched a series of articles on the case of John Geoghan, a priest of the archdiocese of Boston who had been accused of molesting 130 children, convicted of fondling a 10-year-old boy, and sent to prison. (While in prison, Geoghan was murdered by another inmate.) The Globe investigation revealed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse by priests that was covered up by archdiocesan officials. The ensuing public uproar resulted in the resignation of Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, the following December.
It became evident that, despite years of programs, reports, and directives from the USCCB, the archdiocese had done little to respond to complaints of clergy sexual abuse. On the contrary, archdiocesan documents made public and testimony by victims and their families showed an unwillingness by archdiocesan officials to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors. The report further revealed a pattern of intimidation of victims and their families and of protection of offending priests. The Pulitzer Prize–winning series sparked a national crisis of epic proportions.
In April 2002, Pope John Paul II requested a meeting of all U.S. cardinals and USCCB officers with Vatican officials in Rome to discuss the situation. In his address to the meeting, the Pope said:
The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern. (Kennedy 2002)
The meeting concluded with a directive from the Vatican that the U.S. bishops prepare a set of national standards and policies for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other church personnel in the United States.
The Dallas Meeting
The following June, The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by the USCCB at its general meeting in Dallas, Texas, by a vote of 239–13. The Office of Child and Youth Protection is organized to implement the charter, and a National Review Board (NRB) was formed to monitor the function of the office. At its next general meeting in November, the USCCB adopted the text of the Essential Norms for Diocesan / Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons. At its promulgation the following March, the Essential Norms became particular law, binding on all dioceses in the United States.
At the same time, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York was commissioned to embark on a descriptive study of the nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the Catholic Church in the United States. All diocesan bishops were directed to cooperate fully with the study.
The Scope of the Problem
In February 2004, the NRB released A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. The NRB report was combined with the findings of the John Jay College report entitled The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States. The John Jay study found that, between 1950 and 2002, 10,667 individuals made allegations of sexual abuse against 4,392 priests, roughly 4 percent of the 109,694 priests serving during those 52 years. During that time, approximately 3,300 allegations were not investigated because the accused clergymen were dead, and another 1,000 or so claims proved to be unsubstantiated.
The report estimates that the total cost to the church for payment to victims, for their treatment and the treatment of priests, and legal expenses for defending lawsuits exceeded $533 million. The study also found that more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade, peaking in 1980, and that approximately one-third of all cases were reported in 2002–2003, and two-thirds have been reported since 1993. Prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to the church officials.
The ages of the victims vary widely: 27.3 percent were between ages 15 and 17; 50.9 percent were between the ages of 11 and 14; 16 percent were between ages 8 and 10; and 5.8 percent were under age 7. Of the victims, 81 percent were boys and 19 percent were girls. It was found that 149 priests caused 27 percent of allegations. More than half of the accused priests had 1 victim, and 3.5 percent of the priests were accused by more than 10 victims. The following are some highlights of the National Review Board report.
- There were inadequate screening procedures by dioceses and seminaries to weed out candidates unfit for the priesthood.
- There was inadequate seminary formation in the area of celibacy and sexuality.
- There is need of further study concerning the sexual orientation of priests, since 81 percent of the abuse was same-sex in nature.
- There is need of further study concerning celibacy, since the instances of sexual abuse reveal a malformation of human sexuality.
- There are special issues of spiritual life for bishops and priests, since both the acts of abuse by priests and the failure of bishops to put an end to it were “grievously sinful.”
Additionally, the report found that, for many bishops, their responses to allegations of abuse “were characterized by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy and neglect.” Among issues it cited regarding the bishops were:
- A failure to understand the nature and scope of the abuse and the harm it caused.
- A failure to respond adequately to victims, both pastorally and legally.
- Making unwarranted presumptions in favor of the priest when assessing allegations.
- A culture of clericalism that sought to protect the accused priest.
- Aspects of church law that made it difficult to assess criminal penalties, even when it was clear the priest had violated the law.
- A culture of leniency that failed to recognize the horror of the abuse and the need to condemn it.
- An emphasis on secrecy and avoidance of scandal at all costs.
- Failure to report actions that were civil crimes to civil authorities.
- Overreliance on corrective therapy, depending on psychologists and psychiatrists to “cure” offenders and make them fit to return to ministry.
- Overreliance on attorneys, treating allegations as primarily legal problems rather than problems of pastoral and moral concern.
The report acknowledged that some bishops were aware of the serious nature of the problem early on and spent years trying to convince authorities to change church law so abusers could be taken out of ministry and dealt with more effectively. The study also said that bishops were often ill-served by the therapists and lawyers they depended on for guidance.
The report drew particular attention to the bishops who protected abusers and was very critical of those bishops who failed to act on behalf of victims. Such bishops, the report states, were guilty of neglect and insensitivity toward victims. They not only allowed the abuse to continue, they also spread the abuse and multiplied the number of victims by reassigning molesters to new and unsuspecting parishes.
Developing Safe Environments
With the publication of The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, 194 of 195 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States enacted Safe Environment programs designed to prevent further sexual abuse of children. All clergy, religious and lay church workers, school teachers, and volunteers must submit to fingerprinting and background checks by the FBI and the Department of Justice. Safe Environment classes and workshops are mandatory for all clergy and lay diocesan, parish, and school personnel. All diocesan and parish personnel must undergo instruction in mandated reporting, the legal responsibility of reporting to police any suspicion of sexual abuse of children. Pastoral settings must provide for adequate supervision of adults with children. No adult, clergy or lay, can be left alone or out of sight of another responsible adult while meeting with children. Children must be taught the dangers of sexual abuse by adults and how to recognize inappropriate behavior by adults. All adults, and especially parents, need to learn how to listen to their children and recognize the signs that a child is being sexually abused.
Developments after 2002
In 2003, the archdiocese of Boston paid $85 million to 552 people who claimed sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. In 2004, the diocese of Orange in California settled 90 abuse claims for $100 million. In November 2004, the USCCB established a data collection procedure, whereby dioceses make annual reports regarding allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons and the costs associated with the abuse. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University was given responsibility for compiling and reporting the data.
According to the CARA reports, there were 898 new allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy in 2004, 695 new allegations in 2005, and 635 new allegations against 394 priests or deacons in 2006, in 193 of the 195 dioceses in the United States (Office of Child and Youth Protection et al. 2008). (Two dioceses refused to participate in the survey.) About 70 percent of the reported incidents of sexual abuse occurred between 1960 and 1984. About 70 percent of the accused offenders were either deceased, had already been removed from ministry, or had left the priesthood.
About 60 percent of the priests or deacons named in 2006 had already been accused in previous cases. About 55 percent of the allegations were reported by the victim, according to CARA, and about 80 percent of the victims were boys.
In 2006, dioceses in the United States paid out more than $220 million in settlements to victims. In addition, another $180 million was spent for therapy, support, and legal fees. That compares to a $466.9 million total in 2005. Dioceses also spent over $25 million implementing the prevention and protection programs initiated by the charter.
On July 16, 2007, a judge approved a $660 million settlement between the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles and more than 500 alleged victims of clergy abuse. The deal came after more than five years of negotiations and is by far the largest payout by any diocese since the clergy abuse scandal began. The archdiocese also paid $60 million the previous year to settle 45 cases that were not covered by sexual abuse insurance. Before that, the archdiocese, its insurers, and various Roman Catholic orders had paid more than $114 million to settle 86 claims.
In the following years, seven Catholic dioceses declared bankruptcy due to the enormous financial burdens of the settlements. They are Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; Spokane, Washington; Davenport, Iowa; San Diego, California; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Wilmington, Delaware.
By 2009, there was evidence that cases of abuse had declined sharply and that most of those that did arise were from decades before. Church leaders observed that, while the scandal was an extremely serious matter, it was, in practical terms, caused by a small fraction—perhaps no more than 1 percent—of the total number of 400,000 Catholic priests worldwide. Some Church leaders, such as Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi of Geneva, Switzerland, argued, moreover, that the abuse did not stem from the condition of pedophilia as it affected the various clerical offenders but rather was rooted in homosexuality, an argument that angered many gay rights groups for its implication that homosexuality is inherently deviant and /or harmful.
In Ireland, in November 2009, a report was released that revealed the existence of many abuses and various systemic problems in that country, and this was followed in early 2010 by a wave of similar revelations involving other European countries. The scandal once again was in the international headlines, and Church officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, made the matter a top priority. An additional round of new cases in the United States also caught the public’s eye. Commentators noted that the gap between lay people’s expectations (prosecution of abusers) and the Church’s tendency to protect its own (clerical offenders) was finally beginning to close.
Is This Largely a “Catholic Problem”?
The crisis has given rise to considerable controversies and questions. For example, many asked whether priests are more likely to be pedophiles than nonclergy. The term pedophile has been used to describe priests accused of sexually abusing children. The American Psychiatric Association defines a pedophile as a person who has intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children. A prepubescent child is generally considered to be under age 13. But because prepubescence can be hard to determine, courts generally have set the age below which an accuser may be considered the victim of a pedophile at 11 years. Statistics show that 20 percent of clergy abusers can be accurately described as pedophiles; most have been accused of abusing victims who are younger adolescents.
Why Do Priests Sexually Abuse Minors?
In 1972, and again in 1977, studies by the NCCB/USCC found that more than half of all Catholic priests in the United States were underdeveloped emotionally, and that 8 percent were psychosexually maladjusted. It has been suggested by some researchers that this is due in part to the past practice of recruiting boys into training for the priesthood at an age when they have not yet begun their psychosexual development. At these predeveloping and developing ages, boys perceive the discipline of celibacy simply in terms of avoiding all thoughts, words, and deeds of a sexual nature.
Lacking the opportunities for social and emotional development in these areas, boys can grow into adulthood without the psychological tools needed to function normally in society. Their development can be frozen or fixated at a very early age, so that while they may be chronologically adults, they might still be children emotionally. Therefore, since they lack the ability to control sexual urges when they normally arise, those urges may be directed toward individuals who correspond to the levels of their development. In other words, they may direct their sexual urges toward children and adolescents.
Why Are the Victims Mostly Boys?
It has been suggested by some, most notably Vatican officials, that the problem is largely due to homosexuals in the priesthood. While that may be true, two factors must be considered. The first is that pedophiles, adults who are sexually attracted to prepubescent children, are not necessarily gender specific in their orientation. In other words, pedophiles are not attracted to boys or girls, but rather to children who are not yet sexually differentiated.
Second, in the Catholic culture of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, priests generally had unrestricted access to young boys and adolescent boys. Girls were not permitted to be altar servers, and, in most cases, boys and girls were segregated in Catholic school classrooms and in many parish activities. Catholic parents generally perceived the attentions of priests toward their sons as a good thing. On the other hand, priests who sought the company of girls were regarded with suspicion. Additionally, priests were expected to encourage vocations to the priesthood, and their close association with boys in the parish was considered normal. This allowed much greater freedom for predator priests to target boys.
Why Wasn’t the Abuse Reported by Church Officials?
Since the Council of Trent some 400 years ago, the discipline of priestly celibacy had been rigorously enforced. Additionally, bishops were bound by church law to maintain strict secrecy when it came to violations of celibacy. All records of misbehavior by clergy were kept in confidential files, and officials were obliged not to reveal anything that might cause scandal. Any sexual misbehavior by priests was considered a violation of celibacy.
When credible allegations of sexual abuse did arise, offending priests were ordered to cease the behavior. In many instances, the offending priest was transferred to another parish where the sexual abuse continued. When it was determined that a priest had an ongoing problem, he was often sent to a treatment facility where he underwent therapy to resolve the problem. After a period of time, it was determined that the offending priest was no longer a threat to children, and he was returned to parish ministry. At the time, church law would have made it extremely difficult for a bishop to remove a priest from active ministry.
Why Did Bishops Allow the Abuse to Continue?
In some cases, bishops were simply negligent. It has been suggested by some researchers that many bishops lacked the expertise to properly evaluate the suitability of their priests to work safely with children. These bishops relied on the advice and counsel of experts, which, in many cases, was unreliable.
Additionally, it has been suggested that the culture of bishops effectively distanced them from any awareness of the damage sexual abuse was causing children. Insulated from family life and the mainstream of society, they lacked the awareness and sensitivity to adequately understand the problem. They perceived their first responsibility to be the protection of their own, and the welfare of the children became a secondary consideration. Therefore, they failed in their responsibility to care for their people.
Why Didn’t Parents Force the Issue?
In the Catholic culture of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when most of the abuse occurred, respect and reverence for clergy was placed very high on the social scale. It was inconceivable to parents that priests would do such things to their children. The parents, when informed of the abuse, often reacted with denial. Plus, the credibility of children was often questioned. The word of the priest held sway over the stories reported by the children. Compounding the problem, the children lacked the experience and vocabulary to adequately describe what was happening to them. When a child is sexually victimized by a superior adult, the child believes the adult is right, and it is the child who has misbehaved. During testimony that came out in the investigations, many adults who were sexually abused as children reported that they had tried to inform parents but were rebuff ed.
Why Did It Take So Long for the Victims to Come Forward?
When a child is sexually abused, he or she must deal with the horror in the only ways available. Without adult allies, children will often repress the memory of abuse in the same way a person will not remember a terrible car accident. The memory of childhood sexual abuse may remain submerged for years until something like a newspaper article or television report will awaken the memory. Adults who have lived for decades with sexual and relational difficulties may suddenly become aware of the events that led to their dysfunction. When that happens, they may still lack the courage to come forward. The experience of shame is a very powerful motivator. It is only with a great deal of effort that individuals can break through the barrier of guilt and report their experiences.
Are Children Safe in Church?
With the implementation of Safe Environment programs in the dioceses, the Catholic Church may now be the safest place for a child to be. Statistics indicate that most sexual abuse of children occurs in the home by family members, trusted family friends, and neighbors. If anything, the sexual abuse scandal has provided society with a new awareness of the threat of sexual predators. The United States will no longer be deaf or blind to the plight of its children.
Church Scandals: Who Is Punished for Church Scandals?
Few would debate that guilty clergy and religious leaders should face legal penalties for their behavior in the same manner that any other citizen should. Furthermore, punitive financial damages (often into the millions of dollars) are a common form of legal recourse in the United States in legal actions against large institutions. However, in the case of a church, are there circumstances that make this a complex issue of justice? There have been church members, both clergy and laity, who have openly wondered whether large-scale financial suits are the most effective, or even fair and just, manner to deal with the issues. In fact, it has been argued that many entirely innocent people are punished by punitive financial awards against a church institution that must then sell property (often quickly), lay off staff , and /or lower salaries, because of the abuses of a minority of church staff and officials. Often the most vulnerable properties, offices, and personnel, are those dealing with minority or marginal communities within the church—and it is arguable that this is much more common in the cases of church institutions losing a large financial court case than a major industrial or commercial company facing a major financial payment. Who, in fact, is paying the price for these settlements of abuse scandals?
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