“Ask a Priest: Is There Guilt by Association?”

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Q: This topic deals with being involved with someone who might be guilty of sinning but without you knowing for sure. If we take a personal relationship between a man and woman as an example, let’s say a man has reason to suspect that a woman he’s involved with might be committing fornication. Would that man be held accountable in God’s eyes if that woman is indeed doing wrong without his knowledge? Same deal with, say, a business partner: If a business partner is doing something shady without the other partner’s knowledge, would the innocent partner be held accountable for the other partner’s wrongdoings? -M.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The short answer is, ultimately each person is responsible for his own sins. We can’t be directly responsible for another’s sin if we have no knowledge of the sin.

The longer answer is: There might be culpability if someone had strong suspicions but kept quiet. An example would be a husband whose wife is cheating on him. If he has strong suspicions that she is involved with another man, but says nothing, he might be negligent in the sense that, as a spouse, he should be looking out for the spiritual good of his wife. He should not be indifferent to her possible infidelity. Where it gets more complicated is if his suspicions are just a hunch. For him to confront his (possibly innocent) wife might cause all sorts of problems in the marriage.

If a man is dating a woman who he suspects of fornication, he would have to pray and use his wits. The relationship would likely unravel on its own. He doesn’t have the same responsibility to look out for her well-being, but ideally he should be concerned with the state of her soul, and see what he could do to help her. Also, he would have to ask himself about the influence the woman would have on him. If she is fornicating, might she lure him into the same activity too?

If a business partner is doing something shady without the other’s knowledge, the other wouldn’t be immediately responsible for the evil acts (at least not morally; whether he would be financially liable is another matter).

Here, though, one would want to see if the upright partner was following good business practices. For instance, was there a system of regular audits, etc., in place? Business people have a general obligation to try to ensure that their business is following ethical practices. If there are little or no checks and balances in place, then the “innocent” partner could have some culpability if things go awry. I hope this helps.

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