Bishop Accountability

The Catholic Response to Scandal

By Raymond Burke
Then-Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin
December 6-7, 2003

This address given at the Milwaukee Wanderer Forum, December 6-7, 2002 Co-sponsored by the St. Gregory VII Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith Wanderer Forum Foundation, & Living Catholic Seminars


December, 2002 - What has happened in the last eleven months in the life of the Church in our nation is something that I could never have imagined. Having grown up in the Catholic faith, in a family which has always loved the Church and had the deepest respect and affection for her pastors, it has been most difficult for me to comprehend the seemingly unending stories of the sexual abuse of children and young people by Catholic priests and bishops, recounted in the newspapers and through the other communications media. It has been equally difficult to comprehend the reports of the callous manner of handling such abuse on the part of certain Church authorities. What has been a scandal for so many in the Church has also been a scandal for me as a bishop of the Church. I have to confess to times of profound anger with individuals who have perpetrated such crimes and with bishops who have not taken appropriate action to discipline the perpetrators and to protect children and young people from such profound harm.

Having met and spoken with a number of victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, I have painfully come to understand more and more the long-term and devastating effects of the breach of the most sacred trust between a child and his or her spiritual father. It has been understandingly difficult, at times, to respond with the attitude of Christ, with the attitude which our Catholic faith teaches us and in which our Catholic faith forms us, to the scandal which you and I have suffered.

For me as bishop, the scandal personally suffered is profoundly deepened by the accusations, frequently expressed, that I, too, have been only interested in covering up the sins of priests, without concern for the victims who have suffered at their hands, and that I, too, have squandered the patrimony of the Church in doing so.

From a purely human point of view, it is a fact that today is not a good time to be a bishop. When you have given your entire life to the service of the Church and have tried always to teach Catholic faith and morals, and to live accordingly, it is painful to recognize that you now have been placed in a category of persons, subject to the strongest distrust on the part of the very persons whom you have been called to serve and for whom you have given your life in response to God’s call.

But, from the perspective of God’s will for us, whatever time a priest is called to serve the Church as a bishop is a good time. Our faith teaches us that we are called to live in these times and to bear the cross of Christ in carrying out His mission, no matter how difficult the challenges may be. Our faith leads us to seek a deeper understanding of the Catholic response to scandal, so that the suffering of the scandal will not be useless but rather will become the means of growth in holiness of life for us personally and for the whole Church.

The Nature of Scandal

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: "Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil... Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense." (CCC, No. 2284) Scandal becomes more grave if it is caused by a person in authority or if those affected are weak or suffer very much already.

Our Lord used some of his harshest words to indicate the gravity of the sin of the man who would lead one of the "little ones" into sin. (Mt 18:6) Our Lord observes that it is inevitable that scandals will occur. (Mt 18:7) We are sinful human beings and sadly at times we commit sinful acts which are the cause of scandal to another. But our Lord further observes:

"Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes!" (Mt 18:7)

So serious is the moral obligation to avoid scandal that we are admonished not only not to do wrong but also not to appear to do wrong. When a person acts, he or she must always consider the appearance of the act to be done. If a reasonable person could take the act to be gravely immoral, then a person is not to commit the act, even if there is no immorality involved at all.

Here there is a delicate balance, for the viewer of the act can engage in what we call pharisaical scandal. Saint Paul teaches the Corinthians: "Take care, however, lest in exercising your right you become an occasion to the weak." (1 Cor 8:9) We must consider the true weight of our action before another and, if it would legitimately cause scandal, then we must forego the action, even some otherwise good action. On the other hand, we are not obliged to conform our actions to the mind of someone who looks to be scandalized and does not consider reasonably the nature of an action.

As I mentioned before, the gravity of scandal is significantly increased, if the person who causes it enjoys authority, especially authority in the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: "Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others." (CCC, No. 2285) It is difficult for us to comprehend the severity of the wound inflicted upon someone who is led into a sinful act by the very person he or she has been taught to trust as a teacher of faith and morals. Our Lord refers to the perpetrators of such scandals as "wolves on the prowl" who come to us in "sheep’s clothing." (Mt 7:15)

There is another way by which we become guilty of scandal, that is by permitting or contributing to the erosion of the teaching and living of Catholic morals. (cf. CCC, No. 2286) Those who have responsibility for handling on Catholic moral teaching bear a heavy responsibility for the erosion of knowledge and conviction regarding what the Church teaches to be right and good. The cause of scandal "by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion" lies at the root of the scandal of clergy sexual abuse which we have been suffering now for many months.

Disobedience or dissent: Cause of scandal

There is no question that individual disordered and immoral acts committed by priests and bishops are the principal and direct cause of the grave scandal which the whole Church is suffering in our nation at this time. But how is it that priests or bishops commit such acts which betray completely their priestly character and office?

Surely, it is a question of human weakness, of a failure to fortify oneself morally and spiritually, of placing oneself in the occasion of sin, of engaging in vices which easily lead to such sin. But it is also a question of failing to accept and hand on the Church’s moral teaching in its integrity. I have frequently recalled the words of an elderly professor of canon law, who was my professor some twenty years ago, regarding the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy. He frequently told us: "Where there are problems of chastity, there are problems of obedience." We must recognize that the immoral acts which are the cause of scandal are fundamentally acts of rebellion against God’s commandments. Such disordered acts are committed by persons who refuse to bend their heads in obedience to the teaching authority of the Church and become, instead, a law unto themselves.

Specifically, many of the acts which are the source of the present scandal are homosexual acts committed with young people. Granted that there are some cases of true pedophilia, that is disordered acts committed with pre-adolescent children, which have the most devastating, long-lasting effect on the victims, the majority of the acts of sexual abuse are, in fact, committed with adolescent children and are homosexual in character.

Although such acts have been committed throughout the history of mankind, the frequency of such acts is greatly increased in a society which no longer upholds the sanctity of the marriage act which, by its nature, expresses the perpetual, faithful and procreative love of man and woman in marriage. Once sexual union is separated from its inherently marital and procreative nature, once contraception is taught as moral, then the way is open for sexual activity, contrary to God’s law, according to the world’s way of thinking. It is not by accident that the attack on the Church’s perennial teaching regarding contraception was accompanied by the erosion of the Church’s teaching regarding solitary sexual activity and same-sex sexual activity, both of which can never be truly unitive and procreative.

The dissent from the Church’s moral teaching regarding artificial contraception, sterilization, homosexual acts, and self-abuse, which permeates culture, in general, and has also entered into the Church, has its profoundly harmful effect on the thinking and acting of the faithful, in general, and also of the shepherds of the flock. It is not uncommon today to witness a kind of pick-and-choose approach to the Church’s moral teaching on the part of many Catholics. If the shepherds do not teach clearly and consistently the truth about human sexuality, then the flock will be likely led astray by the thinking of the world.

For Satan, the victory is even more complete, if he can corrupt the thinking of the shepherds themselves. According to an old canonical adage, "Corruptio opitimi pessima est," "The corruption of the best is the worst." Recall the words of the Prophet Zechariah: "Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be dispersed, and I will turn my hand against the little ones." (Zech 13:7)

Dissent is fundamentally rebellion against the teaching authority of the Church, a refusal to practice the virtue of obedience. At first, it may express itself in rebellion against some doctrine of the faith. But, once it becomes a habit, it will express itself in immoral practices, a rebellion against the moral order which God has written in our nature and teaches us through the word of Christ.

Seminary education must be especially attentive to the danger of dissent, lest in teaching morality immorality be taught. Rightly, the Holy See has announced an Apostolic Visitation of seminaries as a key part of the response to the scandal of clergy sexual abuse. The Apostolic Visitation will "focus on the question of human formation for celibate chastity based on the criteria found in Pastores Dabo Vobis." (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People [June 2002], Article 17) The United States Bishops have publicly pledged their complete cooperation with the Apostolic Visitation. (cf. Ibid.)

In his address to the Cardinals of the United States on April 23, 2002, our Holy Father underlined the essential connection between sound doctrine and moral integrity. He reminded the Cardinals: "It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that Bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that Bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life." (No. 3b; quoted in Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., From Scandal to Hope, p. 202)

Failure of catechesis and dissent

The dissent which is at the foundation of the sexual abuse scandal has had its most devastating effect in catechesis, especially in the teaching of the faith to children and young people but also to adults, for example, those who are preparing to come into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church. Saint Paul reminds us: "Faith then comes through hearing, and what is heard is the word of Christ." (Rom 10:17) When catechesis has not presented the Catholic faith in its integrity, then the faith of the catechized will be weak and their moral life lacking. We are reaping today the fruits of more than thirty years of catechesis which has not been attentive to presenting the Catholic faith in its completeness. Especially regarding morals, fundamental principles like the principle of cooperation have not been taught and are not understood. Even more serious is the loss of a sense of the first laws of nature which safeguard and promote human life, the family and the practice of religion. (cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-IIæ, q. 94)

What we do not teach as catechists, whether we be priests or members of the laity or consecrated persons, we do not believe as we ought. In our case, there may be yet some vestige of the teaching within us, which, with the help of God’s grace, will be fanned again into flame. For those we catechize, however, the truth of faith or morals may never have been taught and, therefore, the catechized is done a grave injustice, touching upon his own salvation.

There is a radical need to teach again, in its integrity, the natural moral law, especially in a post-Christian culture still influenced so heavily by rationalist philosophy, and the law divinely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and faithfully handed on through the Magisterium. The natural moral law regarding human life and human sexuality must be taught as the foundation upon which to understand the divinely revealed law.

The Catholic response to the scandal

In considering the Catholic response to the scandal, it will help us to consider the teaching of Saint Francis of Assisi, who wrote the following in his Admonitions to the friars: "Nothing should upset a religious except sin. And even then, no matter what kind of sin has been committed, if he is upset or angry for any other reason except charity, he is only drawing blame upon himself." (No. XI)

The first response to the great scandal which we are now suffering must be an act of the greatest possible charity both toward the victims and the perpetrators of the crime. Prayer and reparation must be primary and will be the most efficacious in healing all who have been so deeply wounded. Any other response fails in the charity which is most required in the situation.

In this regard, I wish to say a word about the healing of victims. For the victim, there is the great temptation to make the grave injustice, the deep wound, which he has suffered the whole point of reference of his life. Then, there is no place for Christ to enter into the soul and to pour forth the healing ointment of his love upon the wound which aches so painfully. The victim also is not able to go forward with his life, placing his wounded heart into the Sacred Heart of Jesus and receiving the grace of healing immediately. No matter how grave the act of sexual abuse, our response in Christ must be to hate the sin, but to filled with hope in the healing grace of Christ and filled with love for the sinner.

Secondly, for priests and bishops, there must be a renewed attention to practice prayer and the acts for reparation for the "grave offense to God and the deep wound inflicted upon his holy people." (cf. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Conclusion) The Bishops observed in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People: "Closely connected to prayer and acts of reparation is the call to holiness of life and the care of the diocesan/eparchial bishop to ensure that he and his priests avail themselves of the proven ways of avoiding sin and growing in holiness of life." (Conclusion) There must be a new energy and enthusiasm among priests and Bishops for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, the offering of the Holy Mass which is the heart and source of the entire priestly ministry, for the regular confession of sins in the Sacrament of Penance and the practice of acts of mortification by which the soul is purified and prepared for acts of holiness.

In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, our Holy Father calls us "to rediscover the full practical significance of chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, dedicated to the "universal call to holiness." (No. 30c) As he rightly points out, "the gift in turn becomes a task." (No. 30d) In urging that holiness be the foundation of all pastoral planning, he states strikingly: "It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity." (No. 31b) The temptation to follow a minimalist ethic and to live a shallow religiosity besets us all in our time, including priests and Bishops. Now, as our Holy Father reminds us, "[t]he time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction." (No. 3c)

If the high standard of ordinary Christian living is to be effectively proposed anew, it will come through a renewal of catechesis at all levels and the dedication of faithful theologians and teachers of the faith in providing the practical tools for teaching the Catholic faith and its practice, with integrity, to our children and young people especially. Above all, it will come from a sound teaching of moral theology in our seminaries and Catholic universities.

The Catholic response to scandal is charity. Yes, the scandal must be acknowledged, the gravity of the sin must be recognized and deplored, but, not out of any self-righteousness or other motive, but out of love of God and neighbor. True abhorrence of the sin will lead to the ever greater love of the sinner, to prayer for his reconciliation and acts of reparation for the grave offense given to God and the grave harm caused to the Body of Christ. The temptation is to remain in our horror at the sin and to leave unexamined and uncultivated the deepest motive of the horror at the sin, which is divine charity.

The question of "zero tolerance"

The immensity of the present scandal, which has been so heavily cultivated by the communications media, has led to a response by the Church called "zero tolerance." Clearly, there has to be "zero tolerance" for the sin of sexual abuse of children and young people. In other words, everything must be done to prevent any future acts of such abuse. At the same time, it is fundamentally contrary to the Gospel to speak of "zero tolerance" of any sinner, including a priest who has so gravely betrayed his priestly character and mission. Rather, care must be taken to come to know the true nature and extent of his sinful acts, and to assist him in living a life of repentance. The sinner must be helped by our acts of reparation, and he must be helped to make reparation for the sin committed.

On the part of all, the love of the truth, which expresses itself always in charity, must guide the response to the sin of child sexual abuse by the clergy and to the sinner. The response to the sinner cannot be guided by any agenda, but, rather, must be guided by the good of the individual and the good of the whole Church. When the truth is sought above all else, both the good of the individual and the good of the Church will be served without any contradiction. It is never permitted to serve only the good of the individual or only the good of the Church. Both must be served always.


I offer these reflections out of deepest love of the Church and of you who love the Church deeply and desire to serve the Church, the Bride of Christ, and to make her beauty shine forth in the world for the salvation of all. I offer these reflections out of deepest sorrow for the wounds inflicted upon the Church by us, her sinful members, and out of the deepest desire for the repentance and reparation which will heal those wounds, so that the beauty of the Bride of Christ may be seen by all and all may be attracted to Christ alive for us in the Church.

Before the profound harm to the Church in America and her members, caused by the scandal of child sexual abuse by the clergy, we turn to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of God and Mother of America. She came to our continent in 1531 to announce the message of God’s merciful love, incarnate in the Child conceived in her immaculate womb. Only the holiness of her Child, our Redeemer, will overcome the gravity of the present scandal and heal the deep wound which it has inflicted upon the Church. Let us pray, through the intercession of Our Lady, for holiness of life for bishops and priests, and all members of the Church.

In conclude with words of our Holy Father, which express what must be our deepest conviction and our greatest desire: "We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (cf. Rom 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church."


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.