By the 1990s, the cases began to receive significant media and public attention in some countries, especially in Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States and were widespread by the 2000s. Members of the Church's hierarchy have argued that media coverage was excessive and disproportionate, and that such abuse also takes place in other religions and institutions. A series of television documentaries in the 1990s, such as Suffer the children (UTV, 1994), brought the issue to national attention in Ireland. A critical investigation by The Boston Globe in 2002 led to widespread media coverage of the issue in the United States, which was later dramatized in Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight in 2015. By 2010, much of the reporting focused on abuse in Europe and Australia.
From 2001 to 2010 the Holy See, the central governing body of the Catholic Church, considered sex abuse allegations involving about 3,000 priests dating back fifty years. Cases reflect worldwide patterns of long-term abuse as well as the church hierarchy's pattern of regularly covering up reports of alleged abuse. Diocesan officials and academics knowledgeable about the Roman Catholic Church say that sexual abuse by clergy is generally not discussed, and thus is difficult to measure.
Some studies claim that priests in the Catholic Church may not be any more likely than other men to commit abuse. In addition, the studies claim that the rate of abuse by priests had fallen sharply in the last twenty to thirty years, and that some 75% of the allegations in the United States were of abuse between 1960 and 1984. However, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that the average time it took between a victim of Catholic sexual abuse being abused and reporting it, or seeking redress, is 33 years. For this reason there is insufficient data to be able to accurately ascertain current rates of child sex abuse, or to claim that abuse in the Catholic Church has fallen in recent decades. The Commission revealed 7% of Australian priests between 1950–2009 were accused of abusing children, and that one Catholic order had 40.4% of their non-ordained members with allegations against them in this period.
The sexual abuse of children under the age of consent by priests has received significant media and public attention in the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Philippines, Belgium, France, Germany and Australia. Cases have also been reported in other nations throughout the world. Many of the cases span several decades and are brought forward years after the abuse occurred.
Although nationwide inquiries have been conducted only in the United States and Ireland, as well as an Australian inquiry into institutional responses, cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors have been reported and prosecuted in New Zealand, Canada and other countries. In 1994, allegations of sexual abuse of 47 young seminarians surfaced in Argentina. In 1995, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër resigned from his post as Archbishop of Vienna, Austria over allegations of sexual abuse, although he remained a Cardinal. Since 1995, more than 100 priests from various parts of Australia were convicted of sexual abuse.
In Ireland, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse issued a report that covered six decades (from the 1950s). It noted "endemic" sexual abuse in Catholic boys' institutions, saying that church leaders were aware of abuses and that government inspectors failed to "stop beatings, rapes and humiliation." The commission's report on church abuse ran to five volumes. The report noted the "centrality of poverty and social vulnerability in the lives of the victims of abuse."
In Australia, according to Broken Rites, a support and advocacy group for church-related sex abuse victims, as of 2011 there have been over one hundred cases in which Catholic priests have been charged for child sex offenses. A 2012 police report detailed 40 suicide deaths directly related to abuse by Catholic clergy in the state of Victoria. In January 2013, an Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was called to investigate institutional sexual abuse of minors related, but not exclusive, to matters concerning clergy of the Catholic Church.