Drawing the Line on Scandals in the Church

(photo: Shutterstock image)

Hardly a week has gone by this year without the Holy Father having to deal with some crisis or scandal. He has had the clerical sex abuse scandals of course, but also ongoing corruption allegations involving a few Vatican officials, some very senior.

And we are told more revelations are to come.

As a Catholic journalist, it’s made me wonder how much scandal, particularly in the Vatican, do we need to know? To what extent is disclosing them beneficial to the Church and the building up of each person’s faith? And how much should scandalous revelations be shared outside the family of the Church?

The danger of reporting on the sins of those within the Church is, of course, that not only can they turn people away from the faith but also give ammunition to the Church’s enemies, although clearly any crimes such as child sex abuse and the mishandling of them need to be exposed. As has become painfully clear, fear of scandalizing the faithful can result in making the scandal even worse.

But despite this age of Big Brother and reality TV, do we need to know every shameful act?

Privacy is the ultimate weapon of the anti-life movement (the killing of unborn children is protected by institutional secrecy) yet every affair of every government official is immediately rendered public domain, often with details that are excessive and harmful. The same appears to be becoming true for Church leaders as well.

That may be justified seeing as the Church should be held to a higher standard, but as a friend of mine noted recently, “what kind of people are we becoming where we sit in perpetual judgement over Church scandals and seem to be always hungry for more?”

The contrary argument is that, even though the Church is a school for sinners in need of redemption, the lid needs to be lifted on the institution, and that the Vatican in particular needs to be cleansed of any scandal and corruption if it is to become a truly effective witness. And if those within it aren’t prepared to take necessary measures to do this, the argument goes, then God may well find other ways.

The most obvious alternative means is the media. A positive aspect of today’s information age is that it has made Church leaders arguably more accountable to others than they’ve ever been. The crimes and misdemeanors from history of some rogue elements within the Church, including a few past popes, would today never be tolerated as (hopefully) they’d be quickly exposed.

So whether we like it or not, media scrutiny plays an important part in what Benedict XVI sees as a period of general cleansing and sanctification of the Church. Some would also argue it is fully consistent with the Gospel: the shame of Peter’s denial was made visible to everyone, and prominently recorded.

But where to draw the line, or should it be drawn at all?