Pope Francis arrives at Rome's Circus Maximus to lead an evening prayer vigil with youths on Aug. 11, 2018. Thousand of youths gathered for the meeting with the pontiff in preparation for the next World Youth Day that will be held in Panama next year. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

The Catholic Church needs a new doctrine of scandal

(RNS) — Pope Francis pledged to take all necessary steps to protect the vulnerable and punish the perpetrators earlier this week in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

"Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated," he wrote in a letter addressed to "the People of God."

If such a culture is to be created, it will be necessary to deal with the concept that has been used to justify the covering up of abuse that lies at the heart of the crisis: scandal. Here's how the Pennsylvania grand jury report took note of it:

While each church district had its idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid "scandal." That is not our word, but theirs; it appears over and over and over again in the documents we recovered.

A couple of examples from the Diocese of Erie may suffice:

In a 2004 letter asking Rome to remove the Rev. Chester Gawronski from ministry, Bishop Donald Trautman wrote, "As long as Gawronski exercises priestly ministry and that is publically (sic) known, the effects of scandal among the people of the Diocese of Erie will continue."

The following year, Monsignor Mark Bartchak, who was charged with investigating complaints against the Rev. William Presley, wrote Trautman, "Is it worth the further harm and scandal that might occur if this is all brought up again? I am asking you how you want me to proceed. With due regard for the potential for more harm to individuals and for more scandal, should I continue to follow up on potential leads?"

As these sentences suggest, the writers are not using "scandal" in the ordinary dictionary sense. In Catholic theology, the term has a technical meaning. According to Aquinas, "scandal" is a word or deed that occasions another's ruin — the idea being that sinful activity, if known to others, begets additional sin.

The worst kind of scandal is what brings the church itself into disrepute, because it undermines the faith of the community of believers. Indeed, canon law not only specifies ecclesiastical punishment for clerics who cause scandal by their misbehavior but it also allows a penalty to be suspended "whenever the offender cannot observe it without danger of grave scandal or infamy."

In brief, the reason the word "scandal" appears again and again in abuse documents from the Pennsylvania dioceses — and from wherever else in the Catholic world such documents have come to light — is that bishops have understood themselves to have theological and canonical warrant for keeping the sins of the priests out of public view. The irony, of course, is that all this avoidance of scandal has resulted in the greatest scandal in the Catholic Church since the Reformation.

So if Francis really wants to create a new culture, what the church teaches about scandal needs to change, too.

Let clerics continue to be punished for causing scandal — leading others into sin by their public misbehavior. But the danger of scandal can no longer be considered grounds for the waiving of ecclesiastical penalties.

Francis has not been shy about altering church doctrine, as evidenced most recently by his decision to make capital punishment "inadmissible" under canon law. This is another change for him to make.

More broadly, bishops have to made aware that it is no longer permissible to use the doctrine of scandal to justify covering up evidence of sexual abuse in the priesthood, even when the perpetrator is removed from ministry. Hiding the sins of the fathers has to be the greater sin.

(Mark Silk writes the "Spiritual Politics" column for RNS. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. According to the author, the Roman Catholic Church needs to alter its “doctrine” on scandal to move forward. The implication is that is they were just doing their job–protecting established doctrine. Bullocks! The author describes the rampant child sex abuse and cover ups as “misbehavior.” To the average reader, this could be taken as a mere error in judgment. Hopefully, that wasn’t the author’s intent. Finally, the author says let the clerics continue to be punished. That’s the problem, hundreds of priests and their superiors have escaped punishment because of the cover ups.

  2. Amen.

    There was and is no “doctrine of scandal” that justified not following Canon Law.

  3. My reaction exactly. Silk is trying to turn this into a doctrinal issue, when what it really is is a moral failing on the part of those involved. This results from moving away from the Church and being co-opted by the worst of secular society, not from adherence to “doctrine”!

  4. The problem is Sin. It always has been, and always will be. So the question is, how should the Church deal with the sinners, and sinning, in its midst?

  5. I’ve seen many stories by priests who said they alerted bishops to info they had re abuse by priests, only to be ignored.

    It is simply not possible that the friends of these low-level priests were unaware of what was going on. And similarly impossible that tie bishops et al were unaware.

    It’s clear they were protecting the church at the expense of the kids.

    And I think equally clear that they will continue to do so. It’s the nature and structure of the church to protect itself. All organizations strive to protect themselves, but I think it’s especially true of the church.

    It’s very clear that the church knew very well that these were felonies. We know that because in cases of other felonies, such as priests stealing money, the (alleged) felons were turned in.

    Funny thing, how these sexual criminals were protected……

  6. It isn’t s moral failing at all. It’s an institutional failing, a lack of empathy in that institution, all built upon a lack of understanding of complex issues of sexuality by calling it a sin. It has nothing to do with “the worst of secular society” it undoubtedly occurs there, and is not condoned, but prosecuted. This is a religious institution, and sexual abuse is not condoned by the majority in society, though it seemed to have been condoned throughout that institution.. It has nothing to do with “moving away from the church”, apart from impelling people to move away from the church every uses of a real moral failing, known as hypocrisy, clericalism, and a few others things I could name.

  7. Basically it doesn’t see things your ways, so to h-ll with it.

    That is pretty much how you see law as well.

    Narcissism much?

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