Reprinted from the November 2001 issue of Crisis magazine with permission.

Rudy Kos, former Catholic priest and convicted molester of altar boys, just spent another hot summer in the unair-conditioned Texas prison where he is serving four life sentences for hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse of minors during the 1980s and early 1990s. While Kos, 56, was hardly the first Catholic priest to sexually abuse a child, the court cases that have been brought against him since 1997 have made him one of the most significant. They set the precedent that the Catholic Church itself could be held financially responsible for the harm done by a rogue cleric's sins, bringing the issue of priestly pedophilia into a whole new world of punitive damages. A combination of a jury verdict and settlements in related civil suits required the Diocese of Dallas, where Kos had served as a pastor, to pay eleven victims $121 million, a record sum that threatened to leave a flock of 415,000 Catholics virtually without a Church to shepherd it.

Attorneys for the former altar boys, now in their mid-20s and early 30s, convinced a jury that Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas and his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Tschoeppe, who headed the diocese when Kos committed the first of his crimes, and their hierarchy knew about Kos's abuse, did nothing to stop it, and then tried to cover it up.

This pattern, we now know, would surface again and again in dioceses across the country as more cases of priestly pedophilia began to be filed. So far, more than 3,000 Catholic priests in America have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors, and nearly 2,000 insurance claims have been paid. (Kos is one of a few dozen priests to serve prison time.) Without exception, every one of the 188 dioceses in the American Catholic Church has faced or is facing claims of child sex abuse. Victims' organizations and others say the total payout has climbed past $1 billion, with another half-billion pending. Church officials insist the payout is far less, but they won't open their books to provide numbers.

Regardless, the huge payments have come at a time when many dioceses find themselves already selling property, closing schools, and cutting programs in a fiscal crunch that coincides with smaller donations in the weekly collection baskets.

In August, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange, California, agreed to pay $5.2 million to settle a lawsuit against a once-popular cleric, Msgr. Michael Harris, 56, alleged to have molested a high school boy in 1991, according to the Associated Press wire service. In July, the Boston Globe reported, a judge released the admission of Bernard Cardinal Law of the Archdiocese of Boston that he had known as early as 1984 about allegations of pederasty against John J. Geoghan, a since-defrocked priest who is the object of both a criminal prosecution and at least 84 civil suits over the alleged molestation of boys from 1962 to 1995. According to a lawyer for one of the alleged victims, Church documents reveal that Geoghan was removed from his parish but then assigned to another parish in 1985. The archdiocese has already paid millions of dollars in settlements in the Geoghan matter.

Rudy Kos, who went to prison in 1998, may be long gone from the Catholic scene--Pope John Paul II officially decreed his priestly ordination null and void--but the Church has been forever changed. If bishops seem as though they are putting lawyers' concerns above those of their own flocks, it is because sex-abuse scandals have ingrained a litigation mindset into the culture of Church administration. No other organization, save maybe the tobacco companies, has seen liability lawsuits become such an integral part of its business. It is a transformation that is alienating priests who are guiltless of abuse and also many of their parishioners.

Laying Down the Law

In June, Edward Cardinal Egan of New York called his archdiocesan priests to a special meeting at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. Hundreds of clergymen gathered to hear Cardinal Egan, along with a federal judge and an insurance industry representative, lay down the law regarding sexual abuse and misconduct among priests. An archdiocesan spokesman would not release a copy of the policies presented at the meeting or disclose in any specific detail what was discussed. But according to priests who were there, the cardinal's message was stern, solemn, and clear: This was still a very real problem, one the diocese could no longer afford.

"The two words he wanted us to leave with are 'Alert! Alert!'" one attendee, who did not wish to be identified, told the New York Post.

When then-Archbishop Egan (he was made a cardinal in February) was appointed to succeed John Cardinal O'Connor, who died in May 2000, his first priority was to save the archdiocese from potential financial breakdown. New York had been operating for a decade with a $20 million budget deficit, and that didn't include individual parishes and schools that were also operating in the red. Cardinal Egan did not announce the details of his plan at the time, but rumors ran rampant through the chancery about what might be cut back. After little more than a year at the helm, he shut down more than a dozen church offices, laid off 26 employees, and closed two of New York's three seminaries.

The politically influential archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, survived Cardinal Egan's ax but was turned from a weekly into a monthly. He warned six schools that they might close, and in the end, three did, unable to raise funds to save themselves.