Recurring Cardinal Sins: How the Holy See and Canon Law Have
Perpetuated Child Sexual Abuse by Clergy Members
“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. Looking back to the past, no effort
to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the
future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from
happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”1
On August 20, 2018, Pope Francis uttered the words above in response to one of the most
egregious scandals the Roman Catholic Church has been faced with to date: the uncovering of
decades-worth of child sexual abuse perpetrated by over three hundred priests in the state of
Pennsylvania.2 On August 14, 2018, an explosive grand jury report revealed over one thousand
detailed accounts of children who had been sexually abused at the hands of numerous clergymen
belonging to several Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.3 It also found that there had been a
“systematic cover-up” by church leaders, specifically bishops.4 After the publication of this report,
fourteen states5 and the District of Columbia announced investigative initiatives into the Catholic
Church in their state.6
This is not the first time a diocese in Pennsylvania has been investigated for allegations of
child sexual abuse. In 2016, a grand jury report was released investigating the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which included the city of Pittsburgh.7 The report documented child sexual abuse by
at least fifty different priests or religious leaders within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and
hundreds of victims were identified.8 Even though these two incidents were, in and of themselves,
unacceptable, they are only a fraction of the child sexual abuse scandals that have implicated the
Catholic Church in the United States.
In January 2002, the Boston Globe exposed how leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in
the Archdiocese of Boston covered up child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over a period of
J.D. candidate, May 2020, Loyola University Chicago School of Law; B.A. Psychology, Boston College, 2013.
1 Sheena McKenzie, Barbie Nadeau & Livia Borghese, Pope Francis on Pennsylvania Sex Abuse Report: ‘We
Abandoned The Little Ones’ CBS BOS. (Aug. 20, 2018), https://boston.cbslocal.com/2018/08/20/pope-francis-
2 40TH INVESTIGATING GRAND JURY REPORT 1 INTERIM – REDACTED 1 (Aug. 14, 2018) [hereinafter GRAND JURY
5 Fourteen States: Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, New
Mexico, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.
6 Tara Isabella Burton, Even more states have launched investigations into clerical abuse since the Pennsylvania
report, VOX (Oct. 24, 2018), https://www.vox.com/2018/9/17/17847466/state-investigations-clerical-abuse-dc-
7 COMMONWEALTH OF PA., OFFICE OF ATT’Y GEN., A REPORT OF THE THIRTY-SEVENTH STATEWIDE INVESTIGATING
GRAND JURY 10 (2016).