A publication of Sacred Heart University
A Listening Church
Creative Reimagining Needed to Resolve the Crisis in the Church

The Real Scandal

The “clergy sex abuse scandal” has been something of a misnomer in that, according to the First Law of Media Dynamics, the public always views the cover-up as worse than the crime. Every case of abuse is a crime, a horror and a tragedy. But it is the concealment of those acts, by bishops charged with overseeing priests, that infuriates the flock.

The problem is that the church’s “doctrine of scandal” has, by tradition and by canon law and by some readings of Saint Paul, gotten the formula exactly backwards: sins must be concealed to preserve the faithful – “the faithful” taken here to mean a flock too weak-minded to be trusted – from having their faith undermined by the discovery that some of their shepherds are not all they’ve been cracked up to be. Time and again we heard bishops say they did not want to “give scandal” by publicizing the real reason a pastor was suddenly yanked from the pulpit or sent into retirement or transferred elsewhere, or they claimed they did not want to bring the church into disrepute before a hostile world by airing the clergy’s dirty laundry.

That attitude is, as Victoria Gaile Laidler rightly put it, an “infantilization of the laity” and “an outgrowth of clericalism, which perceives clergy as a class as holier, closer to God, stronger in faith and wiser in judgment than laypeople as a class, purely by virtue of their clerical status.” While some churchmen may have come by this condescension honestly, the sacred rationale for covering up crimes also tended to dovetail suspiciously well with institutional preservation and career advancement.

Until it didn’t.

“The irony, of course, is that all this avoidance of scandal has resulted in the greatest scandal in the Catholic Church since the Reformation,” as Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, put it in a Religion News Service column.

Silk suggested that Pope Francis needs to change canon law to make it clear that the sins of the fathers cannot be hidden on the obviously false pretense that exposing them would shake the faith of the flock and drive them away.

That’s a perfectly fine idea, but while the canon lawyers are sharpening their quills, I’d be happy if the church – starting with the Vatican – simply began telling the whole truth about what it knows about a particular case, and why. “The papacy must be a glass house,” John Paul II told reporters back in the early years of his papacy, in the 1980s. Yet if John Paul himself was happy to be out and about for all to see, he succeeded in constructing an impenetrable edifice around the rest of the church, ostensibly to defend her from a hostile world and the contagion of secularism and moral relativism. What that wall also shielded, however, was the church’s own relativism when it came to the sexual abuses of minors, a scandal that went virtually unaddressed throughout much of his papacy.

Francis, after many missteps, has been much better when it comes to transparency. But again, the bar was low and much more needs to be done. Hopefully the Vatican summit on combating abuse at the end of February will be another step forward in this regard, but one simple step – and one that should hardly be controversial – would be for the Vatican to explain why a bishop has been forced to resign, or indeed why he is allowed to resign at all and has not been dismissed. It hardly saves face, or protects the sensibilities of a flock that now assumes the worst, to have a bishop who has shielded an abuser or committed some other act of misgovernance to retire without an adequate explanation beyond the citation of a generic passage from canon law (and even that is not always forthcoming these days).

Similarly, that all dioceses in the U.S. have not published lists of credibly accused clerics (“credibly accused” or “substantiated allegations” being terms that also need some clarification) is confounding, to say the least. Before the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report last August, only about 40 out of 187 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States had revealed the names of clerical abusers; as of January that number has more than doubled, but it still accounts for just about half of all dioceses. And some still aren’t getting the message.

The Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., for example, is hesitating to join what it calls a “stampede” toward transparency, with a spokesman for Bishop Peter Jugis telling the Charlotte Observer that doing so might re-traumatize victims. “There is no empirical evidence that publishing a list brings comfort or aid to a victim,” said David Hains. “(Some Catholic priests) have obviously done a lot to harm victims. We don’t want to pile on and do more.”

Victims themselves say that’s empirically not the case, and indeed publishing names of alleged abusers has been shown to be the most effective way of empowering victims who have not stepped forward to speak up.

There’s an important corollary to this appeal for transparency, namely the responsibility of Catholic media to investigate and report the truth. No account of the arc of this scandal narrative is complete without noting the groundbreaking efforts by National Catholic Reporter starting in the 1980s and continuing over the decades. NCR, along with journalists in secular media who pursued these stories, were subject to relentless criticism, stonewalling and worse; yet they persisted.

The role of Catholic media today is even more important for two reasons: One, the abuse crisis has grown more complex as we are moving forward from viewing it as a simple, and simplistic, problem of bad priests and zero tolerance solutions. It’s now becoming clear that this is a problem of a distorted clerical culture, of episcopal malfeasance and improper priestly formation – and these issues will require deeper and more far-reaching global solutions involving theology and ecclesiology, governance and ministry. These are the kind of topics that Catholic journalists should be able to tackle better than anyone.

But the other reality is that Catholic media must step up because secular media are facing tectonic shifts in the industry that are dramatically reducing the number of reporters available to cover a growing number of pressing issues, from politics to economics. Religion is often left behind.

Unfortunately, even as the Internet provided more points of entry for Catholic journalism at a lower cost, the price has been to open the door to well-financed, ideologically-oriented outlets and social media mavens on the right that have suddenly discovered the clergy abuse crisis – and are weaponizing it to advance their agenda on behalf of their pet political issues, against what they see as doctrinal lassitude, against gays in the priesthood (and anywhere else in the church) and, above all, against Pope Francis and his allies who are seeking a more inclusive, pastoral and dynamic church. The faux journalism of these Catholic media and their like-minded secular counterparts ultimately winds up taking the focus away from reforms to make children safe and the church a credible witness to the Gospel.

A secular media that has fewer religion writers, and fewer reporters with experience on the Catholic beat, relies more than ever on Catholic outlets to provide leads on church news. What they too often find are stories promoted by self-styled Catholic journalists who display little knowledge of the practice of journalism or the ethics of Catholicism.

If, as the sobering aphorism has it, “The first casualty of war is truth,” then a Church that sees itself at war with the world – and a Catholic media waging a civil war inside the Church – are going to produce yet another victim in a tragic crisis that has already seen far too many.


David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.