A comprehensive, yearlong investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Switzerland released on Tuesday has documented more than 1,000 instances of abuse dating back to the mid-20th century.
The Swiss Bishops’ Conference commissioned the groundbreaking study by the University of Zurich’s Historical Seminar, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.
“The findings expose deep-rooted issues that go beyond the actions of individual perpetrators to systemic causes that Church leaders must answer for,” said Bishop Felix Gmür of Basel, president of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, in an immediate response to the study.
The 136-page report documents 1,002 cases of abuse since the mid-20th century involving 510 accused and 921 victims. The research team cautioned that these figures represent “only the tip of the iceberg,” as numerous archives remain unevaluated.
The study also highlighted a systematic cover-up within the church. “Church criminal law was scarcely enforced for much of the study period. Instead, many cases were deliberately concealed or minimized,” the report stated. It further revealed that Church leaders often transferred accused clerics, sometimes internationally, to evade secular prosecution.
The report summary indicated that 39% of the victims were female, while just under 56% were male. “In almost all cases, the accused were men, and 74% of the evaluated files evidenced sexual abuse of minors,” the report added.
Gmür emphasized the need for future studies to explore “Catholic specifics” that may have contributed to the abuse, such as sexual morality and celibacy. “This guilt cannot simply be erased. It must be confronted, focusing on the Church’s power dynamics and sexual ethics,” he said.
The Swiss Bishops’ Conference pledged to take action. “We will establish and fund independent reporting offices to facilitate the reporting of abuses,” Gmür said, according to CNA Deutsch.
Gmür also stated that all related documents would be preserved indefinitely to prevent further cover-ups.
On Sunday, the Swiss Bishops’ Conference disclosed an ongoing Vatican-led investigation into handling abuse allegations, expected to conclude by the end of the year.
Allegations against several members of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference were forwarded to the Dicastery for Bishops in Rome, which has appointed Bishop Joseph Bonnemain of the Swiss Diocese of Chur to lead the inquiry.
The Catholic Church is not new to controversy. The institution’s actions prompted The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning spotlight investigation detailing the pedophilic transgressions of Catholic priests and enabling evasive maneuvers of their bishops. However, there are many other scandals involving the church, including more instances of sexual abuse, privacy violations and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
1 Child sex abuse in Pennsylvania
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a 900-page report detailing 70 years of child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in the state. The report found 300 priests involved in the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 identifiable victims and likely many more that went unreported. The grand jury said the church followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” The New York Times reported.
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.” The investigation was led by then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is now Pennsylvania’s governor. He said the cover-up “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican,” adding that the church “protected their institution at all costs” and “showed a complete disdain for victims.” The report also prompted investigations in other states, many of which uncovered similar findings.
2 Sex, drugs and nun control
The Bishop of Fort Worth and 10 cloistered nuns in Arlington, Texas, have been at odds in a convoluted scandal, Slate reported. The head of a local convent, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, had a seizure in 2022 requiring medical intervention. While medicated, Gerlach admitted to committing online “sexual sin” with a priest, a violation of her vow of chastity. The information was reported to Bishop Michael Olson, who began a crusade against the nuns, interrogating them and confiscating their devices. Soon, the nuns refused to cooperate, claiming Olson was “traumatizing” them.
Things escalated further, with Olson threatening to dismiss the nuns from their Carmelite order, and the nuns then suing Olson for violating their privacy and defamation. The nuns’ lawyer also called in the police to investigate Olson, prompting Olson’s office to release photos by a “confidential informant” taken in the nuns’ monastery showing “marijuana edibles, a bong and other drug paraphernalia.” The nuns claimed that the photo was staged and that Olson was trying to shut the monastery down to seize their property.
The conflict is still ongoing and the nuns have rejected Olson’s authority over them, despite Vatican intervention. “Every action he has taken with regard to us has proven to be devious and deceptive, marked by falsehood and an intent to persecute us,” the nuns wrote.
3 Art, abuse and Marko Rupnik
Slovenian priest Marko Rupnik was expelled from the Jesuits in June 2023 for “sexually, spiritually and psychologically abusing women” for decades, The Associated Press reported. However, Rupnik is also a famous Catholic mosaic artist whose work is in chapels all over the world, including the U.S. This has sparked debate as to whether his art should be removed or whether people should separate the art from the artist.
“The good of art is in the work of art itself,” argued the Rev. Patrick Briscoe in Our Sunday Visitor. “If we say anything else, we concede that art is, of itself and in fact, ideological.” On the other side, the victims of Rupnik’s abuse and other abuse survivors are calling for the art to be removed. “His artwork should be removed, as a testimony to the entire church, and as a witness, that there are consequences to perpetrating abuse,” clerical abuse victim Gina Barthel told The Pillar.
4 Child sex abuse in Baltimore
In April 2023, Maryland’s attorney general released a report outlining the sexual abuse of children and teenagers over six decades by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, The New York Times reported. The 463-page report identifies 156 abusers (10 of whose names are redacted) connected to the church, mostly men who served as priests, who abused more than 600 children dating back to the 1940s.
The report “illustrates the depraved, systemic failure of the archdiocese to protect the most vulnerable — the children it was charged to keep safe,” Attorney General Anthony Brown said. Archbishop William Lori, head of the Baltimore archdiocese — the oldest diocese in the U.S. — said in a statement he sees “the pain and destruction that was perpetrated by representatives of the church and perpetuated by the failures that allowed this evil to fester, and I am deeply sorry.”
5 The outing of a top priest
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, secretary-general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was forced to resign from his position in 2021 because he was found to have downloaded the gay dating app Grindr and frequently visited gay bars. However, there was controversy in the the way this information was discovered. Catholic news site The Pillar outed Burrill using “commercially available data to trace his calls, movements and behavior since 2018,” The Atlantic reported.
The manner in which The Pillar outed Burrill bothered many people more than his evident breaking of his vow of celibacy. “The use of app-based location tracking data to make public that which someone assumed would remain private should be chilling to any American with a smartphone,” remarked Catholic journal America Magazine. In addition, The Pillar “missed no opportunity to mention … charges that Grindr and other ‘hookup apps’ are used to facilitate sex with minors,” The Atlantic added, essentially conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, despite an acknowledged lack of any evidence that Burrill was in contact with any minors.
6 The prosecution of McCarrick
The Vatican expelled former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood in 2019 for sexually abusing minors. In 2021, he was officially charged in Massachusetts with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s, making him “the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal,” The Boston Globe reported. McCarrick pleaded not guilty.
However, McCarrick, now 93, had the charges dismissed in August 2023 due to “age-related incompetence,” with the judge determining he was not mentally fit to stand trial, CNN reported. “In spite of the criminal court’s decision today, many clergy sexual abuse victims feel as though former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is and will always be the permanent personification of evil within the Catholic Church,” said the victim’s lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian.
More than three years after the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for bankruptcy court protection amid mounting allegations of child sex abuse by local clergy, the financial cost to the country’s second-oldest archdiocese is coming into focus.
In a letter Friday to the clergy, religious and laity, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said for the first time that individual parishes, schools and charities will be asked to help cover the rising costs of abuse claims, which total nearly 500 to date. That number has grown dramatically over the course of the church’s bankruptcy.
“When we filed Chapter 11 reorganization in 2020, I was advised by legal counsel that the Chapter 11 proceedings would only impact our administrative offices and not the apostolates – parishes, schools and ministries,” Aymond said in his letter, which was posted to the archdiocese website. “Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.”
When the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, Aymond sent the Vatican a letter estimating out-of-pocket expenses would be less than $7.5 million. In fact, attorneys’ fees alone have already exceeded $26 million.
It’s unclear how much the archdiocese will seek from parishes and schools, which are not technically debtors in the bankruptcy case and have a separate attorney representing them. The letter says only: “We now know there must be a contribution from the apostolates. We do not yet know what that total contribution will be or what will be asked of each entity.”
In its most recent financial statement, the archdiocese listed total assets of some $580 million and liabilities of more than $454 million, including more than $121 million worth of real estate.
But the estimated value of those 1,400 pieces of property is considered low because it is based on historic market value, or the price the archdiocese paid for the property, and does not include the value of land, buildings and other assets owned by the some 200 church apostolates.
An attorney representing the apostolates, Douglas Draper, said “the letter represents what is going to happen and what the apostolates are going to be asked to do, and there is nothing else to say about it.”
Author Jason Berry, who has documented decades of clergy sex abuse by the Catholic church, said Aymond’s letter suggests the church was given poor advice by its lawyers.
“It’s a moral disaster that stems from putting your eggs in the basket of firms like Jones Walker,” Berry said. “Aymond admits in the letter that counsel told him three years ago that it would only have an impact on the administration. Now he’s saying the lawyers were wrong.”
Since filing for bankruptcy court protection in May 2020, Jones Walker has been paid more than $13 million, according to the most recent court filings. That’s more than half the $25 million or so the archdiocese has paid overall to law firms, consultants, financial and real-estate experts helping it navigate the reorganization process.
The firm did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
A growing debt
In his letter, Aymond attributed the change in financial strategy to the archdiocese’s growing liability in the case. When the church filed for Chapter 11, some 30 lawsuits alleging abuse had been filed against individual clergy members and the archdiocese as a whole.
In the years that followed, the number of claims — many dating back decades and alleging abuse against Catholic priests, nuns, brothers and deacons — swelled to 450.
After a new state law passed in 2021 and enacted in 2022 extended the window for claims to be filed, the number grew to nearly 500.
Earlier this week, the case took a dramatic turn, when Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams announced criminal charges against 91-year-old former priest Lawrence Hecker, who was indicted on charges of rape and kidnapping dating back to the 1970s. Hecker is just the second clergyman in New Orleans to be charged for crimes allegedly committed before the 2002 sex-abuse scandal spread across the globe.
In his letter Friday, Aymond said part of the church’s new strategy will involve seeking a court ruling to protect individual parishes and apostolates from being sued, once the bankruptcy case is settled, over past abuses.
“This will help preserve the assets of parishes, schools and ministries against past claims of abuse,” he said.
The letter also says that the archdiocese is actively seeking to pay off the bulk of claims through real estate sales — both of properties owned outright by the archdiocese and by those owned by parishes, schools and charitable ministries.
“Soaring insurance rates and costly maintenance have impacted our ability to maintain appropriately the over 1,400 pieces of property [the church owns] and remain good stewards of our resources,” he said. “This work will be a very important factor to determine contributions asked of the apostolates as well.”
Late last month, the archdiocese asked the bankruptcy court for permission to begin marketing for sale seven pieces of property that, if sold for asking price, would fetch more than $10 million. Aymond’s letter today suggests many more will follow.
“I remain committed to the majority of the settlement being paid with the assets of the Archdiocese and our insurers,” the letter says. “We are working through a court-approved process to sell real estate to fund the settlement and streamline our real estate holdings.”
He concludes, “Through these efforts and by the grace of God, we will emerge better prepared for the future and be an even strong Catholic family.”
A teen girl and her mother have accused a priest in the Syracuse Catholic Diocese of having an inappropriate relationship with the girl since she was 14, according to court documents.
Rev. Nathan Brooks, 36, of LaFayette, has been charged with third-degree sex abuse, forcible touching and endangering the welfare of a child. The incidents happened between 2019 and 2021, authorities said.
On Tuesday, Brooks was arraigned in the Homer Town Court.
Court documents obtained by Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard Tuesday reveal new details in the case.
The girl, who recently turned 18, and her mother came forward to authorities after the girl saw Brooks interacting with others and became concerned that he was treating other girls the way he had treated her, according to a deposition the girl gave to the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office.
Brooks met the family when he became their priest in 2019, according to a deposition from the mother. The family would invite him to their home often, the mother told deputies.
At one time while Brooks and the girl were swimming together, the priest brushed a hand against the teen’s vagina in a noticeable way, the girl said in the deposition. Other times while they were swimming he would pull her toward him and have her on his lap, she told deputies.
Brooks would also constantly message the girl, despite her mother telling him not to and a diocese policy that prevents priests from contacting minors.
He would send “flirty” messages regarding a couple from the show “The Office,” the girl told deputies. He told her to delete the messages so her mother would not find out he was in contact with her, she said.
The girl also said that Brooks would give her “long hugs” that would last around 30 seconds. During one of those hugs, she felt his erect penis, she told deputies.
“We were way too close and I realize now that this was inappropriate,” the girl said in the disposition.
The girl said that Brooks also had inappropriate contact with her while on a bus for a youth trip.
In her statement, the girl said that just a few months before she turned 18, she realized something was wrong. She said she cut off all contact with Brooks in June 2023 and told her mom about what had been going on.
She said she saw Brooks have an unusual interaction with someone and realized he may be treating other girls the same way and was concerned. Her statements in the court documents don’t detail what she saw.
“I had many incidents and encounters with [Brooks] that made me uncomfortable and I now know he was grooming me,” she told deputies.
On Tuesday, Brooks’ attorney, Michael Vavonese, said that people should not jump to any conclusions about the case. He pointed out that Brooks has entered a not-guilty plea to all the charges against him.
Vavonese would not comment on whether he was retained by Brooks or the diocese.
Brooks has been suspended from all priest duties as the criminal investigation plays out, the diocese officials said last week.
Brooks is an administrator at the Church of the Nativity at St. Joseph in LaFayette, Immaculate Conception in Pompey, St. Leo in Tully and St. Patrick Mission in Otisco.
He was ordained in 2019 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. He graduated from Bishop Grimes High School in 2005 before attending St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, according to The Catholic Sun.
The settlement is the second largest sex abuse payout by a Roman Catholic institution and its affiliates in any Roman Catholic bankruptcy case, according to a law firm that represents over 120 sex abuse survivors in the Syracuse diocese.
It’s been quite some time since a story involving a major figure or incident in the Catholic Church was covered by both the mainstream and religious press.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
The story in question at the moment involves disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most influential Catholic prelates of the past half century on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pope Francis, readers will recall, defrocked McCarrick — the press-friendly former cardinal of Washington, D.C. — in 2019 following a Vatican tribunal into allegations that he had molested a 16-year-old boy decades ago. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals the prior year, but only after an accusation that he had molested the teenage altar boy while serving at the Archdiocese of New York was found to be credible. At that point, some newsrooms finally began covering years of off-the-record reports about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians.
McCarrick, now 93, has gone into seclusion the past few years. He’s been largely forgotten by the mainstream press (with a few notable exceptions).
That all changed on Aug. 30, when the latest chapter in the McCarrick saga emerged in the form of a court hearing. A Massachusetts judge ruled that the former cardinal was not competent to stand trial in another sex abuse case. The 2021 case stems from a charge that “Uncle Ted” — as he was often called by seminarians — had sexually assaulted a teenage boy in Massachusetts.
The Associated Press covered the story this way, replete with a dateline. Here’s how the article opens:
DEDHAM, Mass. (AP) — The once-powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick will not stand trial on charges he sexually assaulted a teenage boy decades ago, as a Massachusetts judge dismissed the case against the 93-year-old on Wednesday because both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree he is experiencing dementia.
McCarrick, the ex-archbishop of Washington, D.C., was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after an internal Vatican investigation determined he sexually molested adults as well as children. The McCarrick scandal created a crisis of credibility for the church, primarily because there was evidence Vatican and U.S. church leaders knew he slept with seminarians but turned a blind eye as McCarrick rose to the top of the U.S. church as an adept fundraiser who advised three popes.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Dr. Kerry Nelligan, a psychologist hired by the prosecution, said she found significant deficits in McCarrick’s memory during two interviews in June, and he was often unable to recall what they had discussed from one hour to the next. As with any form of dementia, she said there are no medications that could improve the symptoms.
The biggest takeaway from the coverage wasn’t the news of the day. That was straightforward, as you can see from the AP dispatch.
In fact, all the coverage was similar when it came to the facts of what happened in the courtroom and in this particular case. Where the coverage differed was the lack of proper background information regarding McCarrick’s past and his powerful influence on the church in this country and Rome, which he had discussed (included claims to have helped elect Pope Francis) in public remarks. The coverage also needed additional background information about the clergy sex-abuse scandal as a whole.
This is how CNN explained McCarrick’s past standing in two throwaway paragraphs at the end of its web story:
Raised to cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, a year after he became Archbishop of Washington, McCarrick went on to become a power player both in the Church and in Washington, DC, and was known for his fundraising and influence overseas.
He resigned from the College of Cardinals in 2018 and was defrocked by the Vatican in 2019 after a Church trial found him guilty of sexually abusing minors.
CNN wasn’t alone. NPR, also at the end of its story, did it this way:
Many victims of clergy sex abuse that took place during their childhoods have only been able to seek legal recourse through civil cases rather than criminal charges.
A number of states in recent years have opened special “look back” windows in their statutes of limitation for sexual assault and harassment. That move was prompted by the #MeToo movement, but it also benefited survivors of clergy sex abuse.
Not much there. No discussion of “Team Ted,” the circle of loyal mainstream news reporters who looked to McCarrick for inside information about Catholic life?
Let’s compare those two approaches with the offerings of some reporters in the Catholic press. Catholic News Agency, for example, published three stories about McCarrick last week. One of those stories — under the headline, “Theodore McCarrick: ‘I have trouble with words’” — delved into Uncle Ted’s current mental state.
In focusing a piece on McCarrick’s health now, CNA said this about who he used to be:
In 2000, when McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and under investigation by the Vatican for occasionally sharing a bed with seminarians at a vacation home on the Jersey Shore owned by the archdiocese, McCarrick issued a comprehensive and apparently heartfelt denial of sexual misconduct with others.
“Your Excellency, sure I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the 70 years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect,” McCarrick wrote to Pope John Paul II’s secretary, then-Bishop Stanislaw Dziwicz.
McCarrick’s letter seems to have gone right to John Paul’s heart.
“Tell McCarrick that I believe what he said and I am still a friend,” John Paul told Cardinal Angelo Sodano, his secretary of state, shortly before Sodano was to visit the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Vatican commissioned by Pope Francis.
“McCarrick’s denial was believed,” the Vatican report states, “and the view was held that, if allegations against McCarrick were made public, McCarrick would be able to refute them easily.”
Three months after McCarrick sent the letter, John Paul promoted McCarrick, appointing him archbishop of Washington. In February 2001, the pope made him a cardinal.
McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington until 2006, when he resigned at the canon-law retirement age for bishops, 75.
Notice a difference between the mainstream press’ background information versus what Catholic media provided to readers?
McCarrick’s past, in terms of mainstream press coverage, was much less detailed and gave little to no context to the ex-cardinal’s role and associations. CNA did the best work here.
It’s not a surprise. CNA, owned and operated by EWTN, is on the doctrinal right. McCarrick is automatically seen as an adversarial figure — and not just because he molested teenage boys. McCarrick was a powerbroker and hobnobbed with D.C. politicians as well Vatican cardinals. He was, he said, a kingmaker in terms of Americans given red hats as cardinals.
Also, he was the man behind the strategic “McCarrick Doctrine.” It was in June 2004 when then-Cardinal Benedict XVI sent a letter to then-Cardinal McCarrick and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The instruction was in the context of dealing with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic whose public positions on abortion contradicted church teachings.
The key: The Ratzinger letter affirmed that denial of Communion is obligatory “regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia.”
But McCarrick misrepresented the Ratzinger letter, thus shaping mainstream press coverage for years to come: “The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent,” he said. As a result, during the meeting of the USCCB that year, the bishops voted 183-6 to approve a compromise statement allowing each bishop to decide whether to give Communion to “pro-choice” politicians.
Why does this lack of information about McCarrick matter? Does it matter that men McCarrick claimed to have promoted remain powerful leaders in the Catholic Church, especially here in America?
It matters because background and context help readers understand stories better. In McCarrick’s case, context matters because the ex-cardinal hasn’t been in the news for some time. It also matters because McCarrick is a complicated figure who needs explaining.
Lost in all the news barrage sometimes are pieces that make you sit up and ponder the ramifications of all these sordid revelations regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis. More importantly, what are the ramifications are for the church’s hierarchy.
The big story remains who knew what and when. Who’s implicated in potentially covering up the misdeeds of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over the years? The implication here is that the cover-up — if that’s the word you want to use — goes beyond Pope Francis, but back in time years to when Saint Pope John Paul II was the head of the Roman Catholic church.
Last August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Francis — had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago. Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleged that Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013, that McCarrick was a serial predator who attacked young men. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”
Over the past seven months, the allegations have yielded few answers. McCarrick was recently defrocked — the church’s version of the death penalty — but little else has been made public about the timeline. A news analysis piece by veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, writing in Crux, makes some wonderful points. His piece, under the headline “Vigano may have made it harder to get to the truth on McCarrick,” has a series of wonderful strands worth the time to read. It also gives a roadmap for reporters on the beat and editors to look at and track down.
A 449-page Vatican report issued a year after that post detailed McCarrick’s decades of sexual misconduct. The report largely exonerated Pope Francis when it came to McCarrick’s depravity. Instead, it placed much of the blame on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In other words, who knew what and when they knew it was something this report left open to interpretation.
Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. Nonetheless, some in the Catholic press managed to give context, while many in the mainstream press did not.
CNN and NPR weren’t alone. The AP story referenced at the start of this post makes no mention at all of McCarrick’s past or standing as the most influential, most media-friendly Catholic prelate in the United States. It also fails to distinguish between children who were molested and teenagers. It doesn’t appear that any of McCarrick’s victims were prepubescent, which is another topic the mainstream press has shied away from when covering any cases involving clerics and the sex abuse of seminarians.
It’s no surprise that, when it comes to most stories, the some in the Catholic press had an edge here. But when it comes to context and background (especially when it comes to doctrine), no one should have an edge.
In fact, asking the right questions and knowing where to look can provide all that. Like with everything involving McCarrick, it’s complicated. But making this less complicated and explaining it to readers is what journalism is all about.