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The Catholic Church needs a new doctrine of scandal

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)

(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.)

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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