How the bishops use and abuse “scandal”

It has become a synonym for “institution-harming controversy” or “bad public relations,” which are to be avoided at all costs.

Prelates attend Mass during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual spring assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Is anything more tiresome and condescending than hearing the myriad mindless invocations of the word “scandal” in this on-going abuse crisis? This word has been bandied about in such transparently self-serving fashion by too many bishops for too long. They have arrogantly imagined that most Catholics are feeble Victorian spinsters prone to collapsing on the nearest chaise lounge. In doing so, they have found a powerful tool for justifying their own wickedness. They have also failed to understand the meaning of the term as it is used in Scripture. In fact, they have turned the meaning of the word on its head.

In the New Testament, the word σκάνδαλον (skandalon) is a noun occurring a dozen or so times in Matthew, Luke, Romans, I Corinthians, Galatians, I Peter, I John, and Revelation. It originally seems to have referred to the stick which springs a trap—a snare, in other words—and has come to mean something over which one trips; a stumbling block, in other words, which is how many English translations of Scripture render it. Some translations choose to render it as “offense,” as in something that offends someone and prevents him from attaining some other goal or understanding, such as faith. Thus, in perhaps the most famous example of this phrase, St. Paul says “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23-24).

In the hands of bishops and others, however, the word “scandal” has nothing to do with God and everything to do with them and their image. It has become a synonym for “institution-harming controversy” or, better, “bad public relations,” which are to be avoided at all costs. The bishops rationalized their handling of abusers, or the keeping quiet of their own abuse, by claiming time and again that any publicity would “give scandal.” What they meant here was that it would cause them problems in the press, making them look bad and possibly putting their comfortable perches in peril as the money, power, and prestige dried up. In so thinking, they were no different than corporate executives that seek to avoid bad publicity and protect stock prices by failing to tell people their lettuce is laced with e coli or their Pintos have a propensity for exploding.

One corporation decades ago understood, correctly and admirably, that the true scandal comes in the cover-up. The cover-up is what gives offense; it is what causes people to trip and never get up again from the pit of mistrust into which they have been cast by those cravenly hiding the truth and telling them comforting lies. That corporation was Johnson & Johnson in the aftermath of the Tylenol poisonings in Chicago in 1982. I learned about their handling of the case in a social psychology class in 1992, and ever after I have regularly wondered why Catholic bishops never understood how right Johnson & Johnson’s handling was, and how appallingly destructive their own has been.

At the time, pill bottles did not have the multiple seals and tamper-proof packaging we take for granted today. So various Tylenol bottles were poisoned and seven people died. When the news broke, many market analysts figured Tylenol as a brand was also dead, and in fact its market share collapsed overnight, many assuming it would never recover.

In the first response, James E. Burke, the CEO, indicated that the evidence clearly suggested poisoning in stores, not at the factory where the drug was made. But he didn’t say this to shift the blame. To prove he was taking this with utmost seriousness, he stopped all advertising for Tylenol, set up a toll-free number for people to call, and sent out wide-ranging and frequent communications to doctors, pharmacists, and others. He worked closely and openly with the Chicago police, FBI, and FDA to provide as much information to the public on a regular basis. Strikingly, the FBI and FDA apparently told Burke that recalling the entire stock of Tylenol (some 32 million bottles) would be “excessive,” but Burke did it anyway—losing $100 million in the process, but gaining far more in rapidly recovered credibility from the public. Then the company changed from capsules to the hard caplet form we know today, as these are much harder to tamper with. These new bottles had the triple seals everyone else soon copied for their over-the-counter medications. Finally they enticed consumers to throw away their existing bottles of Tylenol at home by sending out coupons good for the price of a new bottle.

Burke’s “excessive” response to the disaster went far beyond what most companies did or what people thought necessary. As a result, the company and brand rebounded within a year, and not long after would gain long-term preeminence in the market. While I am usually loathe to suggest that corporations are models for the Church to emulate, in this instance the J&J response contains valuable lessons for the Church precisely because J&J knew, in ways bishops have shamefully yet to master, that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” J&J’s response has often been written about in various textbooks as an admirable way to handle a major disaster. If we applied all this to the Church today, what would we need to see?

In some ways, it’s too late for the bishops to recover. But perhaps they yet could if they were all seen to be “excessively” transparent, self-sacrificing, and aggressive (no, seriously!) in getting all the details of abuse out. At a minimum this would require them to:

  • Publish every year—before being subpoenaed by another grand jury—on their diocesan websites the contents of their secret archives, and other documents governing abuse cases, pending or settled.
  • Publish every year an audited accounting of all monies spent on lawyers, therapists, abusers, and victims.
  • Release all victims from “confidentiality agreements,” allowing them to talk to anybody they want.
  • Cease fighting the extension of the statute of limitations in the states and testify before their respective legislatures that they support the extension of the statute—but for how long? Following the language and logic of the clinician Leonard Shengold (see his 1991 book Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation), let the statute of limitations for abuse match that of murder, which is to say: there be no limitation. Culprits can be prosecuted as long as they are alive, no matter how far back the offenses occurred.
  • Demand that Pope Francis change the Church’s canon law to adopt the same approach.
  • Demand that the special tribunal for trying bishops that Pope Francis set up in 2015 in the CDF, but then apparently abandoned, be re-established and staffed with people who can receive complaints directly via e-mail, or a toll-free international line, or submission on a website.
  • Devote their entire upcoming November meeting to “chapter faults,” as done in monasteries of yesteryear: each bishop, in public, on his knees in front of the cameras, confesses his own sins of omission and commission connected to the abuse. Each bishop also brings one abuse victim from his diocese who is given a chance to tell his/her story to all the bishops. The meeting, as Cardinal DiNardo has recently hinted, cannot be devoted to discussing only Theodore McCarrick, who is fast in danger of becoming an over-convenient whipping boy (richly deserved though that is) to distract from the malfeasance of the rest of them. They would invite the FBI to observe those conversations to see if their collusion in moving abuser priests across state lines to other dioceses met the criteria for a RICO prosecution, which the bishops would not oppose. This meeting would see the bishops fasting on nothing but bread and water the whole time, and every Mass would be a requiem Mass in black vestments for the victims who have committed suicide, and all those others rendered spiritually dead by the abuse.

Doubtless few bishops would do any of this, even if their lawyers and PR people didn’t try to dissuade them. And in refusing strong, striking action, they are condemning themselves and the Church to the very collapse that Johnson & Johnson avoided by doing what even federal regulators found “excessive.” If there is one thing that characterizes God’s love for us, it is its excessive nature, going far beyond what we deserve. In refusing “excessive” action that goes beyond what seems “safe,” the bishops will themselves become the true skandalon, tripping up and ensnaring many called by God into his Church.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Okay, but the same should be applied to ALL institutions. Including public schools. Let’s take care of ALL victims, not just Catholic ones. No singling out one group for this treatment.

    • Let’s start by holding our own organization to its own standards. God has spoken to us through the Holy Bible, prophets and His Son, Christ. We profess our belief that the Church contains the fullness of Truth and that the Church has the key to eternal life with God in Heaven.

      Note that Christ never walked into either Herod nor Pilates residences and turned tables upside down. He didn’t even expend anger at Pilate. But the money changers in the temple, apostles when they doubted….they experienced his anger.

  2. Every single one of them should take a lie detector test as to their own sexual activity and their knowledge, including knowledge of rumors, of that of other bishops, priests and religious, and their knowing participation in promoting homosexual offenders. Those who truthfully self report repeated personal sexual failings or participation in the gay mafia, and those who fail the tests, should be deposed immediately, without further process. Their replacements would need to pass the same tests. Humiliating? Yes, let these hierarchs show humility.

  3. I give at weekly Mass, I give to a charity in Alabama, I give away clothes and money and food during the year.

    To the Bishop’s annual appeal – nothing.

  4. “…let the statute of limitations for abuse match that of murder, which is to say: there be no limitation. Culprits can be prosecuted as long as they are alive, no matter how far back the offenses occurred.”

    That’s a very bad idea. SOLs exist for a very good reasons in the case of sex abuse, given that it is generally a “he said, s(he) said” type of situation.

  5. FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS: investigation and financial audit of every living Bishop and seminary director involved in any way with any case in the 2002-04 sex abuse cases, and any cases subsequently arising, including those hidden from the 2002-04 investigation, such as those hidden by Cardinal Wuerl.

  6. 3 things.

    1) This is the best article on this issue.

    2) But it is the last thing on my mobile phone display. It should be promoted to first.

    3) There has to be systematic inquiry into the personal life of the Architectof the American Episcopal System, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, whose own abuse case was swept under the rug, and was accused of horrific ritual abuse if anything worse than Pennsylvania,

    Without unearthing to sunlight the fetid Bernardin, all the upset will settle down in a year. It will have been playing pin the tail on the donkey with the horses running out the barn door left open.

  7. Prof. DeVille must be (I hope) about as serious in this article as Thomas More was when he wrote Utopia, using a mixture of hyperbole and sarcasm to make his point. Possibly the best (and truly most realistic) recommendation he has in this essay regards the re-establishment of a pontifical tribunal for wayward bishops. But why not go one-further, borrowing from yet another historical event and applying it to the current situation: the Truth and Reconciliation Committees (TRC) in 1990s post-Apartheid South Africa? These institutions helped speed the process of integrating and healing the nation, even possibly preventing what could have developed into a civil war.
    In a somewhat modified form of the TRC, bishops or other superiors would admit publicly their own wrongdoing or culpable negligence regarding abuse of children/teens—or those others otherwise under their authority (e.g. seminarians) and subsequently afford them an opportunity to come forth on their own and accuse themselves, with the incentive (and incentive here is crucial) of a possible reduction or even cancellation of penalties which might be imposed on them in a pontifical tribunal–depending on the specific delicts. This could help the victims work through and possibly beyond their pain and sorrow, with God’s help, and open their hearts to forgiveness and reconciliation. (And, truthfully, we’re not hearing much about that.) At the same time, such admissions would allow the guilty prelates an opportunity to take real responsibility and promote restorative justice in their own person. This moral and spiritual bridge-building could create a new environment between victims and enablers (or, yes, perpetrators), or at least to open the opportunities for this in the context of the Christian life, to facilitate transcendence of bitterness, alienation and hatred.
    (It would also have the advantage over things like the “week/month/year of repentance” dioceses are rushing to establish, in which at least 99% of the participants have nothing to repent of… since they didn’t actually do anything wrong.)

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