Child Abuse Within the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church and History of Child Sexual Abuse

When you think about the Catholic religion, or any organized religion, child sexual abuse is not typically what might first come to mind. When people think about organized religion, more common connotations might include codes of conduct, moral standards, worship, and community. However, since entering the 21st century, and with specific focus on Catholicism, a growing and alarming connotation of child sexual abuse continues to emerge.

While the exposure of child abuse in the Catholic church has made public news since the 1980s, the investigations that have been conducted reveal and suggest the presence of abuse well before the media attention. Church officials have covered up decades of clergy misconduct on an international level, making it a global crisis. While acknowledged by multiple members of the church hierarchy, the question of whether adequate actions have been taken to rectify and prevent further abuse is debated.

Response and Prevention

The response of the Catholic church to the child abuse allegations and investigations is conflicting. While every pope that has held the position since the 1980s has made statements and apologies in regards to the allegations, the organization continues to be criticized, and more abuse continues to be exposed. Some people  within the church have criticized the media’s coverage, arguing that coverage has been biased and excessive. It may be the case that the abuse within the Catholic church receives more coverage than abuse within other organizations or religious sects, but the argument that the problem is smaller than media outlets indicate is not in itself a solution to the abuse that does take place.

Fortunately, there is some progress being made toward clergy accountability. For example, Pope Francis made headlines in 2019 by lifting the “secrecy” rule regarding abuse. This undoubtedly marked an important step in the right direction.Unfortunately, since then the United Nations has continued to report inappropriate responses and a lack of cooperation with investigations. Earlier this year, the pope also expanded a 2019 law that governs clerical sexual abuse. The new expansion adds accountability for lay leaders, where previously it only included official clergy members. As a result of the mixed response, it is difficult to assess the state of progress regarding the issue, and consequently makes prevention an equally difficult hurdle.

Recent Illinois Report

One of the most recent exposures of abuse was released by Illinois’ attorney general in May of 2023, after the completion of a 5-year investigation. The investigation began in 2018 and included all 6 dioceses in the state. Covering a timeline that dates back to 1950, the report found nearly 2,000 children to have been sexually abused by religious members. None of the identified 451 abusers are known to be in active ministry. However, that number is more than 4 times the number of abusers the church had publicly disclosed prior to the start of the investigation.

While the archbishop of Chicago made a public apology and an in-depth statement regarding the report, there was again an attempt to dismiss the gravity of the report, as well as diverting focus from the Catholic church. The report highlights the lack of action taken by the church, with numerous abusers evading consequences or continuing to serve for years before leaving or being removed.

In Comparison

While the Illinois report is not the first extensive investigation in the country, it should be noted that the United States is also not the only country with exposures of persistent abuse within the church. Ireland has also conducted a nationwide inquiry that resulted in a report spanning 6 decades. Media attention has also been received by several countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, and Australia. Major cases have taken place around the world including several countries in Central America, South America, Germany, Poland, and the Philippines, among others. This is a global issue that continues to evade authoritative action.


Around the world, an ever-present crisis of child sexual abuse has taken place within the Catholic church. Spanning decades, the abuse has been dismissed and covered up by church officials. While numerous reports continue to expose more cases, the actions to reprimand and prevent further abuse seems to be minimal if existent. Although many church officials maintain that changes are being made, the problem continues to persist. This not only has consequences for the clergy members accused of abuse, but also for the victims who get neither justice nor support. Within the recent Illinois report, almost every victim of abuse has detailed additional struggles, such as mental health issues, as a consequence. In addition, it is likely that none of the accused will have any repercussions due to the statute of limitations and a majority having passed away.

Additional Information

For more details on the Illinois report, click here.

If you or someone you know has experienced abuse, there is help. These are some resources:

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Visit Nami for additional mental health resources and information

To View our publications regarding child abuse, child maltreatment, and resources for professionals in the field, visit our bookstore.

This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications.


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