Catholic Church and the Sexual Abuse of Minors

The revelations of the sexual abuse of minors by some Roman Catholic priests have brought to light the issues of surveillance, security, and privacy in U.S. society. While the Catholic Church in 1984 implemented policies to curb abuse, the abuse was kept out of the public eye until the media exposed the sexual abuse in 2002. After the abuse came to public attention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study the nature and scope of the problem. The study showed that most of the abuse occurred between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, peaking in the 1970s. In 1984, the Church addressed the issue by implementing reforms. In 2011, the John Jay College issued a second study as to the causes and context of the abuse. In both studies, it was confirmed that most of the victims were postpubescent but under the age of 18 years. Some have claimed that in the search to understand what happened, how it happened, and how it can be prevented in the future, the security and privacy of those involved have been violated and continue to be at risk, and some have demanded surveillance of seminarians.


Although laws that change the statutes of limitation are understandable, some contend that such laws are unfair. Opponents to these laws point out that most of these laws are directed specifically at the Catholic Church or at religion itself; rarely do these laws include changing the statutes of limitations for all who work with children, including public school employees. This creates a situation in which some accused abusers will be free from prosecution after 90 days, whereas others will have to face allegations dating back decades. Furthermore, opponents argue that because these laws target a specific religion, they have already been determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993) , the Court, in a 9–0 decision, struck down a city ordinance that banned the killing of animals. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye is Santeria, and religious worship includes the sacrificing of chickens and other small animals. What the Court found at issue with the ordinance was that while it did not specifically name the church or mention religion, it was specifically targeting the church and how it worships—and the Court stated that any law that targets a religion or religion in general is unconstitutional.


Surveillance is also an issue as some advocacy groups, such as the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), have requested that the Church release the personnel files of each seminarian to them for review and that the Church receive SNAP’s recommendation before the seminarian is ordained as a priest. Because SNAP has requested that the federal courts require this of the Church, some have questioned the constitutionality of this type of surveillance. These opponents view such activity as a form of government coercion and argue that it has already been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) . They argue further that SNAP, a private organization, will use government entities, such as the police, to enforce compliance with its determinations, a type of enforcement that was found unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) .

Mary L. Carver

See also Bill of Rights ; Civil Liberties ; Privacy, Right to ; U.S. Constitution

Further Readings

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).

John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States: 1950–2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004. (Accessed September 2017).

v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).