Scandals in the Church

In the words of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, “No one does more harm to the Church than he, who having the title or rank of holiness, acts evilly” (Pastoral Care).

As Jesus Christ said in Matthew 18:5, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Incidents in the Church, such as the recent priest sex abuse scandal, testify to the sinfulness of human nature, but also to the fact that the devil is fervently trying to drag as many souls as he can down into the pit with him before the return of Christ. That the enemy is hard at work trying to ruin souls inside the Church should not surprise us, for he seems to be hard at work on the outside, too. Satan knows especially well that the fall of a Christian leader has the effect of destroying the faith of those around him (see   Matthew 26:31). While his tactics have failed to cause the many strong-willed priests who have remained faithful to the Lord to stumble, he only needs a few weak-willed ones to create havoc.

Terrible as the specter of scandal in the Church is, however, it should not cause anyone to lose his faith. Nor should it ever be used to call the Church’s holiness into question. We call the Church holy, not because of the holiness of her members, but because of the holiness of Her Founder, Jesus Christ (see Isaiah 6:3; John 8:46; and the Book of Revelations 4:8).

In the image of Christ, true God and true man, the Church has both a divine and human nature.

Her divine nature—her teachings and sacraments, those things given to her by God—are perfect.

Her human nature—her members—are called to be perfect, and are in the process of being made so (see Matthew 5:48 and Catechism of the Catholic Church 1550). The Church cannot be blamed for the unrepentant sinners within her ranks, who are living in disobedience to her teachings and making a mockery of the sacraments, but Church leaders can and should be held accountable for failing to be proper stewards.1

Jesus warned His followers that there would be scandal in His Church, comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a field full of wheat and weeds in Matthew 13:24. In the parable, the master’s servants come to ask him,

“Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?”; the master replies, “An enemy has done this.” And when the servants offer to go and gather up the weeds, the master answers, “No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let them both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (13:27-30)

Members of the Church, then, ought to be prepared to endure the scandalous behavior of some within their ranks until the Lord’s return.

While the Catholic Church, and specifically the bishops and priests, have rightly received scorn and indignation for the recent priest sex abuse scandal that has taken place, many are unaware of the fact that the bishops had taken aggressive measures to end the abuse of minors by clergy in the early 1990’s, more than a decade before the first story of abuse appeared in the Boston Globe in 2002.

Fortunately–at the time of this writing–due to the policies and efforts enacted by the bishops, not a single case of abuse could be found in the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, after 1993.2. A survey by the Washington Post, furthermore, showed that over the past 40 years less than 1.5 percent of active priests have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors.3 Similarly, a survey by the New York Times found that 1.8 percent of priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 had been accused.4 Studies have also shown that the incident rate of the sexual abuse of minors is higher in other professions and institutions, such as teaching, as well as in non-Catholic congregations.5

Obviously, any rate of abuse above 0.00% within the Church, and anywhere else for that matter, is sinful, wrong, harmful, and unbelievably difficult to forgive, and the sins in society, in general, do not lessen or in any way diminish the heinous behavior of a (small) minority of priests and others, but as Church members, we must realize that such actions will be interpreted to reduce her singular moral authority and must endeavor to do our part to prevent such immoral behavior from reoccurring.

For whatever reason, the Lord, has allowed these scandals to occur in the Church. It is our hope that with His help these destructive events can become catalysts for the renewal of faith. In so doing, He will, once again, prove His absolute dominion over evil.

  1.  In both the Old and New Testaments, there are many instances of leaders failing. A brief list includes King David arranging to have a man killed in order to take his wife (See the Second Book of Samuel 11:2); David’s son, King Solomon, having hundreds of wives and concubines (First Book of Kings 11:3); a male cult prostitution in the Temple (Second Book of Kings 23:7); and in Jeremiah’s day, various leaders, priests, and prophets were guilty of offering child sacrifices (Jeremiah 32:32-35). Despite these and many more scandals in the Old Testament, and despite Israel’s infidelity to God, she never ceased to be God’s chosen people (see John 4:22). God keeps the covenants He makes with His children, even when they fail miserably to hold up their end of the bargain (see Paul’s Letter to the Romans 3:3-4). Likewise, in the New Testament, one of the Apostles betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver; His chief Apostle denied he knew Him; and all but one of the rest abandoned Him in His time of greatest need (see Mark 14:43). After the Resurrection, Saint Thomas refused to believe the Lord had risen (John 20:24-25); Saint Peter was guilty of bigotry (see Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 2:11-14); and Saint Paul conceded, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Paul’s Letter to the Roman’s 7:15). The Church founders were Fallen Men, too.
  2. C.T. Maier and Robert P. Lockwood, “Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Began Long Before Crisis of 2002,” Pittsburgh Catholic, June 8, 2007, pp. 1, 6
  3. “Clergy Abuse in Context: Teachers Sexually Abuse Students Far More Often,”, February 6, 2004; citing a report by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties.
  4. ibid.
  5. “In 2002, Christian Ministry Resources reported on national surveys they conducted which concluded that ‘Despite headlines focusing on the priest problem in the Roman Catholic Church, most American churches being hit with child sexual-abuse allegations are Protestant. The incidence of abuse by teachers is even more staggering, as a 1988 study reported in The Handbook on Sexual Abuse of Children reveals. It reported that ‘One in four girls, and one in six boys, is sexually abused (by a teacher) by age 18.’” (op cit.).

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