Timeline: Priest Abuse Claims Date Back Decades

The Vatican is facing a new round of charges that leaders in the church hierarchy tried to cover up allegations that some priests abused children, but the cases involved date back decades. Here's a timeline of key events.

The Roman Catholic Church is once again defending itself against charges that top officials sought to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by priests. Criticism has been leveled at Pope Benedict XVI himself, for his actions as an archbishop and as the head of a Vatican watchdog group.

These are just the latest allegations in a controversy that has been brewing over the past 60 years. Here are some key events in that history:

1981 -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) becomes prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's watchdog agency for faith and morals, including the investigation of serious crimes.

The German-born cardinal comes to the job at a time when revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests are beginning to surface, especially in the United States.

Among the accused are the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, who eventually acknowledges molesting more than 200 boys, and the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican-born founder of the Catholic order, The Legion of Christ.

1985 -- In one of the first major abuse cases to become public, Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe pleads guilty to 11 counts of molesting boys. He serves 10 years in prison.

1992 -- Massachusetts priest James Porter is charged with sexually abusing more than two dozen boys and girls. Porter, who pleads guilty and is sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison, is the first case in what becomes a major scandal in the Boston diocese.

1992 – At a meeting in South Bend, Ind., the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledges that some bishops have attempted to cover up abuse.

1996 -- Milwaukee's archbishop writes to Cardinal Ratzinger calling for canonical trials for two priests in his diocese who are accused of sexual abuse, including Murphy. He receives no response. Over the next two years, Wisconsin bishops will press for Murphy's dismissal but receive no encouragement from the Vatican.

1997 -- Maciel is charged with sexually abusing seminarians and boys in his care. Ratzinger orders the investigation closed.

1999 -- A Massachusetts court brings child rape charges against former priest John Geoghan. Throughout his career, Geoghan had been repeatedly accused of sexually molesting boys but was transferred from parish to parish until 1998, when he was finally defrocked.

2002 -- The Vatican issues guidelines for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by priests. It calls for all cases to be reported to Rome but makes no mention of reporting the charges to local criminal authorities.

2002 -- Geoghan is sentenced to up to 10 years in state prison. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law apologizes to Geoghan's victims, and the archdiocese pays $10 million to settle lawsuits brought by victims and their families.

Law and his top aides are accused of covering up allegations against pedophile priests. In December, on the day that he is scheduled to testify before a grand jury, Law goes to Rome, where he remains. A week later, he resigns as archbishop of Boston.

The following year, Geoghan dies in prison, murdered by a fellow inmate.

2004 -- A report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops details allegations of child sexual abuse against Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002.

The report, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, finds that more than 10,000 people have made such allegations during the period. Catholic dioceses are able to substantiate accusations against more than 4,000 priests in the U.S., about 4 percent of all priests who served during that time.

2004 -- The Portland, Ore., archdiocese files for bankruptcy, saying it has been drained by tens of millions of dollars in settlements paid to victims of sexual abuse by priests. Other dioceses follow suit, including those in Tucson, Ariz., Spokane, Wash., and Davenport, Iowa.

2005 -- Ratzinger is elected pope.

2006 -- A reopened Vatican investigation finds Maciel guilty of multiple acts of sexual abuse of minors. He is not defrocked but is ordered by Pope Benedict to stop his public ministry and adopt a "life of prayer and penitence."

2007 -- The San Diego diocese becomes the largest in the nation to file for bankruptcy, beset by more than 150 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by about 60 priests.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs charge that the diocese chose bankruptcy to avoid having details of the abuse claims come out in court.

2007 -- The Archdiocese of Los Angeles agrees to pay $660 million to settle abuse claims brought by more than 500 people

2008 -- Pope Benedict announces that he is "deeply ashamed" by the sexual abuse scandals among priests in the U.S. He says the church will not allow pedophiles in the priesthood.

2010 -- Long-simmering allegations of priest sexual abuse come to the fore in Germany, Brazil and Ireland. One case alleges that when Pope Benedict was archbishop of Munich in the early 1980s, he approved the transfer of a priest who was accused of molesting boys. After then-Cardinal Ratzinger's departure, the priest was allowed to resume pastoral work, where he continued the pattern of abuse. A Vatican spokesman says the pope was not responsible for the priest's subsequent crimes. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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