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Spotlight Report

Abuse crisis tests church doctrine on scandal

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/25/2002

Catholic teaching couldn't be more clear: It is wrong to scandalize the faithful.

It's right there in the catechism, under the heading ''respect for the souls of others,'' paragraph 2284: ''The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter.''

For years, the Catholic Church has taught that scandal leads to sin. Divorce is a scandal because it might lead others to break up their marriages. Not voting is a scandal because it might lead others to abstain from participation in American democracy. And revealing bad news about priests is a scandal because it might cause other Catholics to lose faith.

But since the revelations that some bishops routinely failed to inform the public or prosecutors that some priests were molesting minors, Catholic theologians and ethicists are rethinking the priority the church has attached to protecting rank-and-file Catholics from the dark secrets of their church.

''Clearly, this disaster was shaped, in part, by a misplaced preoccupation with institutional repute,'' said Julia A. Fleming, an associate professor of theology at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Nebraska. ''As is often true in such cases, attempts at damage control eventually compromised the most basic form of reputation - the reputation for decency.''

To keep clergy sexual abuse under wraps, many bishops urged families not to speak publicly about allegations of abuse, settled lawsuits brought by victims only if they included confidentiality provisions, and urged that documents about the abuse be kept under seal when filed in court.

The intention, church officials say, was to protect the privacy of victims and to prevent scandal to the church, but the result was that the church moved abusers from parish to parish, or diocese to diocese, without alerting or alarming the public, in many cases enabling the abusers to molest again.

''The irony is that the desire to prevent scandal has given rise to the biggest scandal in the history of the American church,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College.

''So now there's a recognition that there's a much bigger scandal in looking the other way - there's been a shift in thinking about what counts as a scandal,'' he said. ''The content of a scandal cannot focus primarily on the public image of the church, but must be the moral integrity of the Catholic community.''

The Catholic Church has long endeavored to prevent its flock from hearing anything that might cast doubt on the goodness of the church, lest that knowledge encourage Catholics to stop attending Mass or believing in God.

Many lay Catholics accepted the notion that it would be bad to bring scandal on the church. In the current crisis, some parents urged their children not to make a fuss about alleged abuse. And some who accused clergy say they were shunned in their parishes.

The emphasis on scandal-prevention may have stemmed in part from a desire not to feed the once-virulent anti-Catholicism in US culture, scholars say. It also resembles self-protective public relations impulses of a large institution.

But, scholars say, the Christian concern about scandal has roots in the New Testament, in which Saint Paul advises the Christian elite to avoid the consumption of certain meats associated with idol-worship because it might cause some people to rethink their commitment to Christianity.

''The idea of not scandalizing the faithful really derived from a culture in which the chasm between the highly educated and the not-so-educated was great, so that learned, sophisticated people might understand that the local bishop was greedy or had a drinking problem, but it would shock ordinary people to discover that,'' said Lawrence S. Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

''When I was a kid growing up in Florida, if some priest had a drinking problem, all of a sudden he would go away and there would be all kinds of evasions as to why,'' Cunningham said. ''There was all kinds of effort to shield people from these kinds of realities. It was a kind of infantilizing of the Catholic congregation.''

Cunningham said the effort to prevent scandal is ''built into the ethos of being a priest or bishop.'' He said that when he studied in Rome, clergy there were forbidden to go to horse races, the opera, or movie theaters because such behavior by priests might lower the esteem accorded the priesthood.

Scholars say they expect the theological community to revisit the notion of scandal in Catholic thinking, and particularly the priority it is given in church culture.

''The present crisis has certainly affected my own theological work,'' Fleming said. ''As a moral theologian, I find that these events have given me a great deal to think about.''

For Catholics, as for many other Christians, the word scandal has a meaning that is far deeper than its everyday use as a synonym for an outrage. In Christian thinking - which scholars trace to Jesus's warning that it's better to throw oneself into the sea than to lead another to sin - a scandal encourages moral wrongdoing.

''The sense is that the good reputation of the church is of very high value, so any bad behavior in the church is to be muted, downplayed, kept quiet,'' said the Rev. James A. Coriden, a professor of church law at Washington Theological Union.

Church officials now acknowledge that their desire to prevent scandal contributed to the clergy sex abuse crisis - a point made in an exchange between Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer at the Boston law firm Greenberg Traurig, during a deposition of Law on June 5:

Q. So if I understand your answer, from the time that you started as archbishop of Boston, the protection of children has always been a primary focus. Is that your testimony?

A. That's correct.

Q. OK. But there have been other focuses, have there not, Cardinal Law?

A. There have been and there are.

Q. One of those has been to avoid scandal in the Church?

A. That's correct.

When asked why in 1985 he allowed an admitted rapist, the Rev. Eugene M. O'Sullivan, to transfer from Boston to a New Jersey diocese, Law cited concern about scandal as one of the reasons.

''The finding was that he could be assigned without risk; that he had responded well to treatment; and the decision was that it would not be good for him to remain locally because of the publicity attendant to the case and the possible scandal that that can cause,'' Law said later in the deposition.

Law has called his emphasis on scandal prevention a mistake. In April, he declared in a letter to priests that the church's focus on secrecy ''was inspired by a desire to protect the privacy of the victim, to avoid scandal to the faithful, and to preserve the reputation of the priest,'' but that ''we now realize both within the church and in society at large that secrecy often inhibits healing and places others at risk.''

In two editorials in June, the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, called the emphasis on preventing scandal ''a mistake'' and ''an error.''

Scholars say that the concern about scandal is legitimate, but that over the years it gained too much importance in the church, so that it seemed to trump the protection of victims.

''You want to maintain a good image of the church, so people will continue to find spiritual sustenance and identify with the church because it's good for them,'' said Pope, the Boston College theologian.

''So the cardinal's concern is valid,'' Pope said, ''but the question is: What priority does preventing scandal have in a hierarchy of obligations? He gave it a high priority, whereas many would now say that protecting children is more important than protecting a respected image.''

Some bishops say they need to acknowledge that the church, which sought to avoid scandal, has instead caused scandal.

''What's happened now in the church certainly is a scandal, in terms of all the abuse coming to light, so that needs to be named and claimed,'' said Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who is the vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

''I don't see my role as protecting the image of the church, but just living the Gospel faithfully,'' Skylstad said. ''We're a church redeemed and constantly being reformed, and this is certainly an area where we need to look to reformation and renewal in our own church.''

Scholars say they expect Catholic thinkers all over the world will begin exploring how the church's efforts to prevent scandal backfired.

''The theological community is trying to make sense of all this,'' said ethicist James A. Donahue, the president of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, which trains Catholic as well as Protestant clergy. ''The practice, rules, and theory have irrevocably changed, and I can see this happening in the way people are addressing issues, constructing syllabi and courses.''

Some scholars are also arguing that the threat of causing scandal to the faithful has been used to stifle certain avenues of theological exploration or to silence dissent or disagreement within the church.

''We need to watch when church leaders and ministers use the concept of scandal to obfuscate real dangers and problems in the life of the church,'' said the Rev. James F. Keenan, a moral theologian at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge.

''There will be a lot of work coming out on this,'' he said, ''because there's a certain way scandal can imprison us from the truth if we allow concern about scandal to be overriding.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/25/2002.
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