Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE (criminology.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 18 October 2017

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Media

Summary and Keywords

Media attention on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church led to awareness of a serious social problem and increased the levels of disclosure of abuse. The three “emergencies of clerical sexual abuse in the media” occurred in 1985, 1993, and 2002 (Maniscalco, 2005). The catalyst for the media coverage was high-profile clergy offenders with multiple victims and in 2002 also included the claims of cover-ups by high-ranking cardinals in the United States.

Most victims of clergy sexual abuse disclosed their abuse decades after the abuse occurred, and the increased rates of disclosure coincided with the three periods of increased reporting in the media. Though the constant reporting in the media led to some misconceptions about CSA generally and CSA within the Catholic Church, it also led to policy changes in how the church responded to allegations of abuse and aimed to prevent future acts of abuse.

Keywords: sexual abuse, sexual victimization, clergy sexual abuse, Catholic Church, media

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious social problem, and most abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Over the last decade reports have surfaced about abuse occurring in a variety of youth-oriented organizations, including sports (e.g., USA Swimming), social organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts of America), schools (public and private), universities (e.g., Penn State) and religious institutions. Although several of these reports have received intense media coverage (e.g., abuse by Jerry Sandusky), no organization has received more substantial and sustained scrutiny than the Catholic Church.

Three “Emergencies of Clerical Sex Abuse” in the Media

CSA within the Catholic Church dominated media attention in the United States from 2002 onward, when the Boston Globe began covering the abuse allegations of serial predator John Geoghan in the Boston Archdiocese (Boston Globe, 2004). The Boston Globe alone published more than 1,000 articles that year on abuse in the Catholic Church, while the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times published 772 and 599 respectively (Maniscalco, 2005). From March 2002 onward, there were more than 1,000 articles published nationwide every day about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, with a peak of 4,156 articles published in April of that year (Maniscalco, 2005).

Media coverage of CSA in the Catholic Church did not begin in 2002, however. Maniscalco (2005, p. 10) identified three “emergencies of clerical sex abuse allegations in the media” that began two decades earlier. The first widespread reporting of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States occurred in 1983, when Reverend Gilbert Gauthe was accused of fondling, sodomizing, and raping young boys; engaging in oral sex in confessionals; and convincing others to engage in sexual acts with each other while he took photos. In 1984 Gauthe’s case was covered by the National Catholic Reporter as well as secular media outlets including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Gauthe was convicted in 1985 of sexually abusing young children between 1972 and 1983 and served less than 10 years in prison (Terry & LItvinoff, 2014). Though the Gauthe case was covered in the media, stories largely remained in local papers, and at no point were there more than 20 articles printed in a given month (Maniscalco, 2005).

The next high-profile case in the Catholic Church was that of Reverend James Porter in 1993, who reportedly abused over 100 young boys and girls in parishes across Massachusetts during the 1960s. After Porter admitted to abusing between 50 and 100 children on a local Boston television station in 1992, more than 60 victims reported to Boston media and law enforcement that he abused them. In 1993 the media began referring to Porter as a “predator priest,” as he was convicted and sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. The Porter case generated more media coverage than that of Gauthe, with more than 150 news reports about CSA in the Catholic Church in both June and December of 1993 (Maniscalco, 2005).

Though the Gauthe and Porter cases led to significant media focus on CSA in the Catholic Church, these cases were largely seen as anomalies rather than part of an organizational crisis. It was the case of John Geoghan that led to an understanding of the problem as more than an isolated incident. The first story about Geoghan was published in the Boston Globe in 1996, stating that he abused three boys (Langner, 1996). As months passed, more claims of Geoghan’s abusive behavior were reported across religious communities in Massachusetts. By 2002, reports indicated that Geoghan had sexually molested over 130 young boys between the years of 1962 and 1993 and had been transferred to multiple parishes. Media outlets identified Geoghan as a “predator priest,” “moral monster,” a “pure predator,” and a man of “no remorse” (Boston Globe, 2004). It is these labels of Geoghan that led to thousands of media articles on CSA in the Catholic Church and ultimately the perception of this abuse as a “crisis.” Most significantly, these media reports led to the substantial increase in reporting of abuse cases that had happened decades earlier, giving a clearer understanding of the true scope of the problem.

Media Reports 2002–2004

The catalyst for intensive media coverage in 2002 of CSA in the Catholic Church was John Geoghan, but several other issues were that year were reported in the media. According to Maniscalco (2005, p. 15), the key factors that drove media coverage from 2002–2004 were: individual cases covered in detail, such as that of Geoghan; stories of the cover up of abuse by prominent American cardinals; a meeting of American cardinals in Rome in April 2002, which was convened by the Pope; the investigative reporting of certain media outlets, most importantly the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team; diocese-by-diocese analysis by media outlets of abuse over the last decade; and the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), during which they acknowledged the need to better understand and respond to allegations of abuse. Additionally, prominent papers such as the New York Times featured front-page, in-depth coverage CSA in the Catholic Church (Goodstein, 2003). These articles, focusing on CSA in the Catholic Church as an organizational rather than individual problem, led to the perception of a crisis in the church.

During their annual meeting in June 2002, the bishops created a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (2002), with the goal of understanding the problem of CSA in the Catholic Church more fully and enhancing the effectiveness of future responses. Among other things, the Charter called for a descriptive study of the nature and scope of the problem of CSA within the Catholic Church in the United States. The bishops commissioned researchers at John Jay College to conduct the Nature and Scope study, the findings of which were released in February 2004 (John Jay College, 2004) with a subsequent report released in 2006 (John Jay College, 2006). The Charter also called for the creation of a National Review Board (NRB), which at its inception consisted of a group of prominent lay Catholics tasked with oversight of abuse and responses to it within the U.S. Catholic Church. The NRB released a report in February 2004 simultaneously with John Jay College’s Nature and Scope report. Both the John Jay report and the NRB reports were released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and received substantial press coverage. One of the single highest days of media coverage of CSA in the Catholic Church came on the day these two reports were released, with more than 70 articles in mainstream media outlets on that day alone and 20 sustained days of reporting in mainstream national media outlets (Maniscalco, 2005).

Effect of Media Coverage

Research that has evaluated the effect of media coverage regarding CSA in the Catholic Church has focused primarily on two issues: the effect of the media coverage on reporting of abuse and the effect of the abuse crisis on opinions about the Catholic Church.

One aim of the Nature and Scope study was to identify the distribution of abuse cases between 1950 and 2002, and to better understand reporting patterns of the abuse cases. Findings showed that the number of sexual abuse cases rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then decreased sharply (Figure 1).

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Distribution of abuse incidents known by 2003, by year abuse incident occurred.

Importantly, the Nature and Scope study showed that there was a significant delay in the reporting of abuse cases. Most individuals who were sexually abused by Catholic priests waited decades to report their abuse, and many of the cases now known to have occurred were reported in the 2000s. One-third of all cases known by the end of 2002 were reported in that year alone, and 44% of the allegations of abuse were reported between 2000 and 2002 (Figure 2). The reports that were made in 2002 fit the same distribution as the overall total, with cases peaking in the late 1970s and early 1980s and then sharply decreasing (Figure 3).

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Number of abuse incidents reported by year.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Incidents of abuse reported in the year 2002.

The constant reporting of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church generated awareness of both CSA in general and CSA by priests. There was a direct correlation between the media coverage of CSA in the Catholic Church and the reporting of abuse. As Figure 2 shows, there were three increases in reporting that occurred in the years that high-profile cases were reported in the media, or the “emergencies of clerical sex abuse in the media” (Maniscalco, 2005). Only 810 cases of child sexual abuse had been reported prior to 1985, when the first national media coverage of CSA in the Catholic Church occurred. The total now reported to have occurred in that period exceeds 11,000. Figure 4 shows the incidents of abuse cases that had occurred by 1985 that were known by 1985, which can be contrasted with the distribution patterns seen in Figure 1. Finkelhor (2003) attributes this increase in reporting to the destigmatizing effect of the media reports on CSA, particularly for men who were sexually abused.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the MediaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Incidents of sexual abuse known or reported to the church by 1985.

Between 2002 and 2004, much of the reporting on CSA in the Catholic Church was negative with regard to individual priest abusers and the alleged organizational complacency and cover-up that led to the crisis. As such, it could be expected that both Catholics and non-Catholics would have an increasingly negative attitude toward the church as a result of this media exposure. The topics with the highest levels of media coverage in 2002 included: the Pope denouncing the abuse scandal in the United States; the arrest of Reverend Shanley, another high-profile abuser; the suicide of a priest accused of abuse; and the resignation of Cardinal Law, who allegedly covered up abuse allegations and moved priests from diocese to diocese (Maniscalco, 2005).

The effects of media coverage were more nuanced, however, and it did not deteriorate the opinion of the church to most of its constituents. Maniscalco (2005) showed that in February 2004, just before John Jay College released its report on the nature and scope of CSA in the Catholic Church, public confidence and trust in the church actually increased. These findings by Maniscalco were supported by Mancini and Shields (2014), who showed that Catholics who followed the media coverage felt that the media unfairly targeted the Catholic Church, and they were optimistic about the Church and its responses to abuse. Mancini and Shields (2014) further went on to show that non-Catholics who viewed the media coverage as biased expressed more positive views about the Church.

The media exposure of CSA by Catholic priests had a complex effect on non-offending priests in ministry. Kane (2008) showed that non-offending priests in ministry felt the media coverage helped them understand the extent of CSA in the church, and in fact most found out about allegations of abuse through the media. They expressed sadness at the scope of the problem, yet they also were dismayed that the media portrayed all priests as pedophiles. Overall, the priests held a negative perception of the media for their sensationalized reporting but felt that the extent of CSA in the Catholic Church would not have been exposed had it not been for the media coverage.

Problems with Media Reports

Though the media reports on CSA in the Catholic Church increased awareness of the issue and led to increased disclosure of abuse, it also led to some misperceptions about CSA. First, language used in media reports was at times inaccurate, and reports speculated about the causes of the abuse crisis. For example, most media reports referred to “pedophile priests,” a misnomer since most priests did not abuse pre-pubescent children (Finkelhor, 2003; Terry et al., 2011). Also, media reports speculated about the causes of the crisis as homosexuality, celibacy, and many other factors without any data to support their assumptions (Kane, 2008; Terry et al., 2011).

A second problem with the media coverage was that reports on the most serious sexual predators led readers to believe that all Catholic priests who abused were prolific offenders with multiple victims. In fact, that majority of priests with allegations of abuse had a single known victim (John Jay College, 2004). Third, constant media reports led to a misrepresentation about the prevalence of CSA and child maltreatment generally. Although rates of child sexual abuse have been decreasing since the early 1990s (Jones & Finkelhor, 2004), the media attention led the public to believe there were rising rates of CSA in the 2000s. Confounding this misunderstanding was this delay between when the abuse actually occurred and when the abuse was reported. Fourthly, CSA within an institutional context occurs less often that other types of abuse, particularly abuse within the family or by close acquaintances. Yet almost all media reports about CSA in the early 2000s were related to abuse in the Catholic Church.

Summary

Media attention on CSA within the Catholic Church led to awareness of a serious social problem and increased the levels of disclosure of abuse. Most victims disclosed their abuse decades after the abuse occurred, and the increased rates of disclosure coincided with increased rates of reporting on the topic. Though the constant reporting in the media led to some misconceptions about CSA generally and CSA within the Catholic Church, it also led to policy changes in how the church responded to allegations of abuse and aimed to prevent future acts of abuse.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

Despite the extensive media coverage of sexual abuse by clergy, there are few academic articles published on the topic. The most extensive overview of all media reports on clergy sexual abuse in the United States is by Maniscalco (2005). This book provides information about the number of articles on CSA in the Catholic Church by date, topic, and source between 1983–2004. For 2002, the year of the most extensive media coverage, Maniscalco provides a daily review of the number of articles published. No other sources of material provide this level of detail about the abuse crisis.

While Maniscalco’s (2005) study focused on print media, Shavit, Weinstein, and Reiss-Davis (2014) focused on television media. They found that Catholic Church was covered more in print media than on television, which tended to focus on famous individuals (e.g., sexual abuse claims against Michael Jackson) rather than organizations. The Pew Research Center (2010), on the other hand, focused on the coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in all forms of media from 2002–2010. This report noted how the media coverage in Europe in 2010 was nearly as extensive as media coverage in the United States in 2002, with the Pope being the focus in many articles.

Kane (2008) and Mancini and Shields (2014) focused on the impact of the media on Catholic priests and Catholic and non-Catholic lay persons. Both articles found that the media reports were overwhelmingly negative, focusing on the serious sexual predators (e.g., John Geoghan) and the cardinals who allegedly moved them around (e.g., Cardinal Law in Boston). Along with Finkelhor (2003), these scholars noted that the media reports on CSA in the Catholic Church used inflammatory language, often incorrectly, such as “pedophile priests,” and attributed the abuse crisis to issues such as homosexuality and celibacy (without supporting factual evidence). Kane found that the effect of the media reporting on active, non-abusive priests was complex; they were saddened about the extent of the abuse crisis but disappointed in how the crisis was covered. Mancini and Shields found that the more lay persons viewed the media reports as negatively biased, the more positively they viewed the Catholic Church.

Several media outlets themselves provide extensive details about the clergy abuse crisis. Most notably, the Boston Globe has a page dedicated to all of the information their Spotlight Team gathered from 2002–2004. Their website contains information, largely from 2002, about the abusers and the church’s response to them. They also reported on institutional issues, such as the financial impact of the abuse crisis on the church. Other media sources used investigative journalists to cover the crisis and report on the nature and scope of the problem. Most notably, Laurie Goodstein (2003) at the New York Times wrote an in-depth investigative article about the abuse crisis that was published in January 2003. She analyzed every record of abuse that was publicly available at that time and found that 1,205 priests had been publicly accused of abusing 4,268 individuals.

The two studies that provided more in-depth information about CSA in the Catholic Church in the United States were conducted by John Jay College. The Nature and Scope study, published in 2004 with a supplementary report published in 2006, provides detailed information about the priests with allegations of abuse, the abuse incidents, those who made the allegations, when the abuse took place, and when the reports were made. The Causes and Context study, published in 2011, provided information about the individual, historical, organizational, and social factors that led to the crisis as well as the church’s response to the abuse (Terry et al., 2011). A special issue of Criminal Justice & Behavior 35(5) also contains several articles that provide detailed information about the abuse crisis in the United States.

Further Reading

Boston Globe. (2004). The Boston Globe Spotlight investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/.

Cheit, R. E. (2003). What hysteria? A systematic study of newspaper coverage of accused child molesters. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27(6), 607–623.Find this resource:

[Special issue]. Child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(5).Find this resource:

Goodstein, L. (2003, January 12). Decades of damage; Trail of pain in church crisis leads to nearly every diocese. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/us/decades-of-damage-trail-of-pain-in-church-crisis-leads-to-nearly-every-diocese.html.Find this resource:

John Jay College. (2004). The nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States, 1950–2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.Find this resource:

Kane, M. (2008). Investigating attitudes of Catholic priests toward the media and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops response to the sexual abuse scandals of 2002. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11(6), 579–595.Find this resource:

Mancini, C., & Shields, R. (2014). Notes on a (sex crime) scandal: The impact of media coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on public opinion. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(2), 221–232.Find this resource:

Maniscalco, F. J. (2005). United States media coverage of the clerical sex abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church 1983–2004. New York; RF/Binder Partners.Find this resource:

Pew Research Center. (2010). The Pope meets the press: Media coverage of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2010/06/11/the-pope-meets-the-press-media-coverage-of-the-clergy-abuse-scandal/#context-of-the-coverage.

Shavit Y., Weinstein A. Q., Reiss-Davis Z., & Cheit R. E. (2014). Television news magazine coverage of child sexual abuse: 1990–2005. Journal of Mass Communication Journalism, 4(6), 196–205.Find this resource:

Terry, K. J., Smith, M. L., Schuth, K., Kelly, J., Vollman, B., & Massey, C. (2011). Causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.Find this resource:

References

Boston Globe. (2004). The Boston Globe Spotlight investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/.

Cheit, R. E. (2003). What hysteria? A systematic study of newspaper coverage of accused child molesters. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27(6), 607–623.Find this resource:

Finkelhor, D. (2003). The legacy of the clergy abuse scandal. Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 1225–1229.Find this resource:

Goodstein, L. (2003, January). Decades of damage; Trail of pain in church crisis leads to nearly every diocese. New York Times, p. 1.Find this resource:

John Jay College. (2004). The nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States, 1950–2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.Find this resource:

John Jay College. (2006). The nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States—supplementary data analysis. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.Find this resource:

Jones, L. M., & Finkelhor, D. (2004). Sexual abuse decline in the 1990s: Evidence for possible causes (Juvenile Justice Bulletin No. NCJ1999298). Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.Find this resource:

Kane, M. (2008). Investigating attitudes of Catholic priests toward the media and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops response to the sexual abuse scandals of 2002. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 11(6), 579–595.Find this resource:

Langner, P. (1996, July 11). Woman charges priest abused her three sons. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-8382844.html.Find this resource:

Mancini, C., & Shields, R. (2014). Notes on a (sex crime) scandal: The impact of media coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church on public opinion. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(2), 221–232.Find this resource:

Maniscalco, F. J. (2005). United States media coverage of the clerical sex abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church 1983–2004. New York: RF/Binder Partners.Find this resource:

Nordheimer J. (1985, June 25). Sex charges against priest embroil Louisiana parents. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1985/06/20/us/sex-charges-against-priest-embroil-louisiana-parents.htmlFind this resource:

Pew Research Center. (2010). The Pope meets the press: Media coverage of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/2010/06/11/the-pope-meets-the-press-media-coverage-of-the-clergy-abuse-scandal/#context-of-the-coverage.

Shavit Y., Weinstein A. Q., Reiss-Davis Z., & Cheit R. E. (2014). Television news magazine coverage of child sexual abuse: 1990–2005. Journal of Mass Communication Journalism, 4(6), 196–205.Find this resource:

Terry, K. J., & Litvinoff, L. (2014). Child maltreatment in the context of religious organizations. In D. L. Chadwick (Ed.), Child maltreatment (4th ed.). St. Louis, MO: STM Learning.Find this resource:

Terry, K. J., Smith, M. L., Schuth, K., Kelly, J., Vollman, B., & Massey, C. (2011). Causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.Find this resource:

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2002). The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.Find this resource: