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:

What this
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

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

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.

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