Confronting Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: The Role of Secular Courts and their Limitations

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The sexual abuse of children is an inexcusable act of betrayal. It demands accountability for perpetrators and their enablers, and some form of compensatory justice for the victims. Since 1950, an estimated 50,000 children have been abused by Catholic priests. Complicit in the violation, the Catholic Church has for centuries systematically covered up sexual abuse scandals. In confronting sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the relationship of a world-wide religious institution with the customs and laws of the United States must be defined. It is imperative that tensions between religious freedom and the protection of children are settled, for the implications are of great consequence. There are competing tendencies by secular courts in addressing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; one holds religious organizations to a higher standard as they are supposed to be society?s moral leaders and the other is intimidated by First Amendment defenses or simply trusts that the Church will handle issues of abuse internally in a responsible manner. A balance must be struck so as to protect children from victimization and protect the Catholic Church from undue State interference. Individual perpetrators of sexual abuse have absolutely no defense, legal or otherwise. Neutral laws of general applicability extend to the religious. However, State decisions that involve interpreting religious texts, defining roles of religious agents, or effectively adjusting the structure of the Church are unconstitutional and should be avoided. This limitation leaves partial responsibility for alleviating the sexual abuse crisis to the faith community itself.


Keith Naylor




Ford Research Endowment

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