In Bishop Kevin Rhoades Matter, "Public Scandal" Has a Specific Definition in Canon Law | Opinion
By Mark E. GiaQuinta
Harrisburg Patriot News
October 5, 2018
Now that the abuse allegation against Bishop Kevin Rhoades has been investigated and refuted by law enforcement, it is time to debunk the misleading stories of his alleged attempts to cover up actual incidents of abuse laid out in the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
As one who disagrees with the bishop on many social and religious policies, I hope this explanation of his misinterpreted statements is helpful to those unsure of his role in the Pennsylvania tragedies.
Bishop Rhoades has been repeatedly quoted from his letters citing the likelihood of "public scandal" should reports of sexual abuse by two Harrisburg priests be made public.
Without further explanation, one might conclude he was advocating for the church to maintain its decades-long conspiracy of silence that allowed abusive clerics to repeat their crimes. This is unfair to Rhoades. His letters encouraged just the opposite.
Rhoades' use of the term "public scandal" has to be understood within the context of canon law.
My introduction to the different meaning of the word occurred two decades ago as president of the St. Joe Medical Center Board of Directors.
In deciding how to merge the Catholic and Lutheran hospitals, we learned that overcoming "scandal" was a major obstacle. But it was not scandal as we understood the term; there was nothing about the plan that created moral shock.
The canon lawyers explained that the word "scandal" takes on a different meaning when applied to Catholic theology.
Under canon law, scandal exists in the form of enticing sinful behavior. In the case of the merger, the fertility clinic on the Lutheran campus was a problem. Since artificial means of conception is sinful in the Catholic religion, steps had to be taken to avoid the perception that the combined hospital was encouraging an activity deemed immoral by the church.
"Scandal" is also used in canon law in the course of imposing penalties for violations of church law.
This is where Rhoades' comments have been misunderstood. If an act that violates canon law causes or is likely to cause canon law scandal, it is treated differently than if it does not. There are lengthy treatises on how this is determined and many more on the definition itself.
But if a bishop concludes that an offense also includes "scandal" to the church, the disciplinary objective changes and the severity of the church's penalty is more serious.
Since Rhoades himself turned the information of the priests' abuse in to law enforcement, he knew public disclosure was likely.
That allowed Rhoades to make the canon law determination that the priests' conduct, upon becoming public, would create "public scandal." In other words, it was Rhoades' action of disclosing these cases to civil law enforcement that triggered the more serious church penalties associated with a finding of the likelihood of theological scandal.
The public reports of Rhoades' letters to church officials "warning" of public scandal have to be considered alongside his reports to civil authorities.
When his letter and the use of the term "public scandal" are considered in the context of the church's disciplinary process, they take on a totally different meaning than has been reported by various media outlets. In this case, Rhoades did the right thing in both the civil and religious realms.