Church Sex Scandals From Medieval to Modern Times

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Near the conclusion of his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis sympathetically told several adults that “God weeps” over the sexual abuse they had suffered as children at the hands of priests. A month later, Philadelphia’s former district attorney had a slightly different take.

“I wish the cardinals, the archbishops, and the bishops would weep,” Lynne Abraham said during a visit to campus. “They’re not weeping at all. Most of them are still in denial … and protecting their guys against the victims.”

And this unwillingness to act extends back to the early days of the Christian Church, accordingly to another recent speaker at Penn.

Abraham’s strong words served as the opening salvo in an October panel examining the “Ramifications of the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report on Child Sex Abuse in the Archdiocese: Lessons Learned and Lessons Spurned.” In addition to Abraham—who was in office during the issuance of two (of an eventual three) grand jury reports on sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Philadelphia archdiocese—the panel also included Rev. William Byron, a professor of business and society at Saint Joseph’s University; Marci Hamilton L’88, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and resident fellow at Penn’s Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (PRRUCS); and Maureen Rush G’01, vice president for public safety and superintendent of Penn Police.

Timed to mark the 10th anniversary of the most comprehensive of the three reports, their conversation touched upon everything from the limitations of clerical culture to the specifics of an investigation that Abraham called a “very long ordeal.”

Pointing out that accusations of child sexual abuse by the clergy had been in the air for some time before her office began its investigations, Abraham cited the case of Father Gilbert Gauthe, the Louisiana priest whose rampant sexual assaults finally came to light in the mid-1980s, making national news. By the mid-1990s, she said, she had begun clipping similar news reports from “all over the United States.” But it was only after The Boston Globe broke the story of a massive cover-up by that city’s archdiocese in 2002 that she wondered: “Is this happening in Philadelphia?”

Her office began a grand jury investigation “not knowing what we would find out,” she said. “We found out plenty. We found out that the Church stonewalls at every step. They lawyered up. We tried to reason with them, saying, ‘Look, this is in everybody’s best interest.’”

Instead, she said, the response was: “‘This woman has lost her mind!’”

Taking then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua at his word, Abraham said, investigators expected to find a “limited” amount of relevant testimony. Instead, they were overwhelmed by more than 120 cases (involving everything from fondling to rape), necessitating a second grand jury investigation in 2005.

The diocese would eventually release some files on priests who had been accused, even as it “hid 10,000 more pages of records,” Abraham said. The experience “broke the hearts” of her team of Roman Catholic prosecutors, who had been selected partly on account of their religious affiliation. “What we did was revolutionary,” she said. “We named names, we put in photographs. We didn’t stint on details.” (The third grand jury report, in 2011, sought to determine whether adequate measures had been undertaken in the intervening years but concluded that “much has not changed.”)

Hamilton, who has represented accusers, noted that the 2005 document has stood the test of time. “The report had recommendations for legal reform,” she said, noting one whose implementation was particularly important. By 2006, she said, the criminal statute of limitations had been extended so that survivors up to age 50 could sue. The Church went “with hammer and tongs” to prevent alteration of the civil statute of limitations, however, which remains set at age 30.

Hamilton inveighed against the Church’s “fortress mentality.” The archdiocese “has showed its true colors” in one of her current cases, she said, “by insisting on secrecy on every single level. Right now, we are at loggerheads fighting over a simple proposition that this would be a case in a public court.”

A discussion on the institutional culture that promotes such thinking followed. Father Byron, who had sat by silently as the two attorneys recounted the Church’s wrongdoings, acknowledged that the reports made him “begin to think of my own experiences … and the culture in which I had lived, and the clergy privilege. “

First, he said, he began to think about the process of how young men turn to the seminary. For him, the impetus had been the destruction of Germany during World War II, which left him questioning what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “In my view,” he said, “no one has a right to be a priest. So it’s not unfair or intrusive for the admitting authority to say: I want to know your sexual history and, particularly, whether you were ever abused as a child.” When a novice has completed training and is ready to be ordained, Byron suggested instituting a second reckoning to examine “how that person has managed the obligations of celibacy.”

Rush drew on her 40-year career in law enforcement to talk about “institutional criminal abuse,” suggesting that while corporations and police departments have been “taken to task” and subjected to “oversight that came from outside their organization,” only the Church has not. As a young officer in the Philadelphia Police Department, she said, “I saw the ravages of power and control … It takes away people’s personhood and makes them feel as if no one will believe them.”

In any “promotion culture,” Father Byron added, “ambition is the poison at the bottom of the well.” Hamilton agreed. “It’s really about ambition,” she said, “and pride and power.” But some good had come from the investigations, she concluded. “It provided an incredible moment of world education about institutional sex abuse … Seeing that paradigm made it possible to understand Penn State and Poly Prep and Horace Mann. We couldn’t see the pattern before.”

Except the pattern is in fact centuries old, argued Dyan H. Elliott, a professor of humanities and history at Northwestern University, two weeks later. As part of the Penn Humanities Forum, Elliott gave a lecture titled “The Corrupter of Boys: Sexual Scandal and the Medieval Church.”

Elliott’s talk spanned centuries, drawing on artifacts and texts ranging from the Warren Cup (a putative 1st-century silver cup that depicts males engaged in same-sex acts) to Dante’s Inferno to illustrate the widespread presence of—and varying attitudes toward—homosexual eroticism in the medieval Church, which included depictions of sexual relations between older and younger men. Examining the closed, and ostensibly celibate, world of medieval monasteries, Elliott drew a comparison to contemporary prison culture. “In renouncing women and all memory of them, monastic culture left a void. There was no legitimate sexual outlet,” she posited. “Boys, then, fell within the realm of temptation.”

So pervasive was this behavior, in fact, that monasteries established in 6th-century Italy by St. Benedict explicitly listed fornication with children among the “graver sins.” Elliott also alighted on Spain’s 4th-century Council of Elvira, which “coined the idea of abuse with boys”; Ireland’s 7th-centuryPenitential of Cummean, which outlines an array of punishable sins, including sex by a clergyman with a teenage male; and the 11th-century Book of Gomorrah by church reformer St. Peter Damian. Damian “begged Pope Leo to take action against the clergy engaging in same-sex acts,” Elliott pointed out. “The Pope refused to act—his issue was clerical marriage, not the seduction of children.”

After her lecture, Elliott considered parallels to today’s scandals. “As in so many other instances, the past informs the present, she said. “People like St. Fructuosus of Braga, who in the 7th century called for extended public humiliation for monks who committed infractions, were the exception. The church had created a climate of covert tolerance for same-sex relations, and the result was that children ended up being abused.” —JoAnn Greco

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    2 Responses

    1. Ken Zwick, ENG PhD 1996

      Prof. Elliot’s quote, in the last line of JoAnn Greco’s article, asserting that tolerance of homosexuality leads directly to pedophilia is stunningly inaccurate and offensive. The rest of the article discusses how the power structure in the Church, with its requirements of obedience, made it possible for the Philadelphia Archdiocese to cover up the sexual assault of children by priests. A case might even be made that the same power structure enabled priests to lure and coerce children. But there is no case made that these crimes have something to do with acceptance of homosexuality. Most mainline protestant churches now accept and support loving relationships (and now marriages!) between all consenting adults, and I have hope that even the Catholic Church will soon see the light. Attempting to link homosexuality and pedophilia is just trying to turn back the clock to an era of intolerance, that I had hoped we were all moving past.

      1. Brian Shanahan


        Thanks for pointing that out. All too often with homophobic organisations, when they find one of their own has been discovered abusing kids (as they will often have known already) will blame homosexuality, not their unwillingness to properly vet, monitor or report on their own.

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