Last week, Jeff Anderson, the preeminent plaintiffs lawyer in Catholic sex abuse cases, released a letter from then Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan to then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asking that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) do everything necessary to laicize an incorrigible pedophile priest named Franklyn W. Becker. In the letter, Dolan writes:
The public display that will now take place in the criminal trial in California, to say nothing of the civil suits that could arise there, makes the potential for true scandal very real. The media reports on this case have already begun.
Calling the statement “a smoking gun,” Anderson declared:
underscores is Dolan’s desire in concert with the Vatican to think about
one thing: secrecy and preservation of their own reputation. There’s nothing in that or the actions they seem to have taken
concerning Becker that are dedicated to anything but that.
To Dolan’s defense leaped the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, denouncing Anderson as a “liar,” attacking the news media for giving him a free ride, and explaining what Dolan really meant in referring to the danger of “true scandal.”
The term “scandal” in the Catholic lexicon is very specific: it is
defined as “a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another
spiritual ruin.” In other words, once the public finds out more about
Becker, his misconduct will give scandal to the Church by causing the
faithful to question their faith. For that reason, and for his past
record, Dolan said he wanted him out of the priesthood. Anderson knows his way around Catholic circles and knows full well what
Dolan meant, yet he chose the more conventional understanding of the
word “scandal” to condemn him.
Donohue is right about the doctrine of scandal. And as the AP story (not giving Anderson a free ride) pointed out, Dolan wanted Becker gone “[i]n order that justice may be made manifest and healing of the victims and the Church may proceed.” But he was making the best case he could to the CDF. And scandal, in the doctrinal sense, is itself highly problematic.
In case after case, the shielding of priests accused of abuse has been justified on the grounds that this would scandalize the laity (thereby leading to their spiritual ruin). So bishops in Dolan’s position have been forced to argue that not acting publicly against a pedophile would cause greater scandal than keeping the lid on. In the Kiesle case from the early 1980s, the CDF actually asked the bishop of Oakland for assurances that that there would be no scandal if laicization took place.
If anything has become clear over the past quarter century, it is that the doctrine of scandal has been the occasion of greater scandal in the Catholic Church than the sexual abuse itself. Nothing has done more to drag the Church into disrepute–and to alienate the laity–than the revelations of cover-up. It’s time for the doctrine to go.