CNN  — 

A prominent cardinal resigned in disgrace. Grand jurors accused hundreds of Catholic clerics of secretly abusing children. A former Vatican ambassador urged the Pope himself to step down.

It was enough for New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to call it the Catholic Church’s “summer of hell.”

The cardinal may have been overly optimistic.

In fact, the church’s hellish year began in January, when Pope Francis forcefully defended a Chilean bishop he had promoted. He later had to apologize and accept the bishop’s resignation.

But the clergy sex abuse scandal shows no signs of abating, with a federal investigation and probes in 12 states and the District of Columbia in the works.

The Pope has convened a meeting of bishops from around the world in Rome next February 21-24, saying he wants the church to tackle the scandal together. But lay Catholics and law enforcement officials appear to be losing patience with the church’s hierarchy.

“The Catholic Church cannot police itself,” said Lisa Madigan, Illinois’ attorney general, in announcing that Catholic leaders had withheld the names of 500 clergy members accused of abuse.

The church’s institutional crisis was mirrored by individual soul-searching, as American Catholics questioned whether to stay in the church. 2018 saw parents challenging priests at Mass, prominent Catholics urging the faithful to withhold donations and parents worrying whether their children are safe in the sacristy.

One Catholic historian called it the church’s greatest crisis since the Reformation in 1517.

Here’s a guide to how the Catholic Church got to this point in 2018:


The Pope began the year with an apology to sexual abuse survivors in Chile, where he aroused anger by saying he had seen no “proof” against Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused of covering up for an abusive priest.

Francis’ top adviser on the issue, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, called the Pope’s comments “a source of great pain” for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.

Barros denied the accusations and the Pope continued to defend him, even as he sent the Vatican’s top sex abuse adviser to Chile to investigate the allegations.


The Pope had received a letter from a Chilean abuse survivor in 2015, saying that Barros had witnessed a priest molesting teenagers, according to the author of the letter and another source. The news raised questions about whether the Pope had read the letter and what, if anything, he did about it.


In a dramatic reversal, the Pope admits he made “grave errors” in handling the accusations against Barros. After reviewing his investigator’s report on Chile, Francis said his previous comments were based on a “lack of truthful and balanced information.”

The Pope later meets with three Chilean survivors of sexual abuse, including Juan Carlos Cruz, who says Francis told him, “I was part of the problem. I caused this and I apologize to you.”


Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell stands trial on multiple counts of historical sexual abuse in his native Australia. Pell is the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged assault.

Also in Australia, Archbishop Philip Wilson is convicted of covering up sexual abuse, though his conviction was later overturned.

All of Chile’s 34 bishops offer to resign, after a three-day emergency summit at the Vatican. The simultaneous resignation of all the bishops in a single country is thought to be unprecedented in the modern history of the Catholic church. The Pope would later accept the resignation of seven bishops, including Barros.


Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington and an influential voice in the church and international politics, is removed from public ministry by Pope Francis after a church investigation finds an allegation that McCarrick sexually abused a minor in the 1970s “credible and substantiated.” McCarrick said he had “no recollection” of the alleged abuse.

McCarrick is also accused of sexual misconduct with adults “decades ago” while he served as a bishop in Metuchen and Newark, New Jersey, the bishops of those cities said. Two of those allegations resulted in settlements, the bishops said, raising questions about how McCarrick rose through the church’s ranks despite rumors about his conduct.

McCarrick has not commented on those allegations.


After more media reports accuse McCarrick of abusive conduct with seminarians and a young boy, Pope Francis demotes him from the College of Cardinals, a rare step. McCarrick is ordered to lead “a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial.”

Pope Francis accepts the resignation of Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson, the highest-ranking Catholic official ever to be convicted of covering up sex abuse.


A sweeping report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania accuses more than 300 “predator priests” of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children in six dioceses since 1947. Though most of the accusations date back decades, before the church instituted new protocols, the report plunges the church into crisis, as Catholics across the country express outrage.

Two days later, a Vatican spokesman calls the alleged abuses detailed in the Pennsylvania report “criminal and morally reprehensible.”