The National Picture

As they began to delve into the priest abuse story, the Globe reporters knew that it was part of a national trend. They remembered the 1992 Porter case and were vaguely aware of similar cases around the country. The first case to become national news had occurred in 1985 in Lafayette, Louisiana, where 11 boys said they had been abused by their priest, Reverend Gilbert Gauthe. At trial, it emerged that his superiors had known about Gauthe’s problem, secured inadequate treatment for him, kept reassigning him despite reasons to believe he was still a danger, and made confidential payments to the victims.

In response to the Gauthe case, three men wrote a 93-page report calling for a policy to deal with abusive priests. In the report, which was confidential at the time, the authors—Reverend Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer for the Vatican Embassy in Washington, F. Ray Mouton, a lawyer defending Gauthe, and Michael R. Peterson, a psychiatrist—predicted that the scandal would cost the church a billion dollars and said pedophilia was “a lifelong disease with NO HOPE AT THIS POINT IN TIME for cure.”

The authors of the report sought to introduce it at the 1985 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Support was hard to come by, but they had the backing of one influential prelate: the new archbishop of Boston. “Law was definitely a supporter,” Doyle said. But Law withdrew his support at the last minute without an explanation, and the bishops declined to take up the report, which was shelved.

Meanwhile the scandal spread, with allegations of sexual abuse arising across the country. In 1987, an article that went out on the Knight-Ridder wire said that “[t]he church’s reluctance to address the problem is a time bomb waiting to detonate within American Catholicism.” In 1993, dozens of people charged seven priests in Worcester, MA, with sexual abuse. In 1998, a Palm Beach, FL, bishop resigned after admitting to molesting five former altar boys. In 1999, DNA and taped evidence showed that a bishop in Santa Rosa, CA, had been having sex with one of his priests—a scandal that rocked an archdiocese already paying out $5.4 million in child sex-abuse settlements. Also in 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suspended without explanation a canonical proceeding against a Mexican priest accused of sexual assault. In 2000, a youth minister in Middleton, Massachusetts was indicted for allegedly sexually abusing 29 boys.

These several cases, however, were treated by the Catholic Church as isolated instances. The church, and to some degree the press, seemed content to portray the growing list of cases as stories of individual priests who had sinned, been exposed, and brought to justice.