But the nationwide scandal that has unfolded over the last six months shows clearly that the church did not do enough to protect children from pedophile priests. By inattention or design, too many church administrators worsened the problem by covering the tracks of known pedophiles.
This week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Dallas (June 13-15) to try again. While final approval for any mandatory policies must come from the Vatican, we think the bishops have put forth their best plan yet.
Father Thomas Doyle, an American canon lawyer who co-authored the 1985 report on pedophiles in the priesthood, agrees. Doyle calls the 2002 plan to protect youths "a new beginning." The bishops are expected to vote on a plan that would "guarantee an effective response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors" and strengthen accountability procedures, including reporting all allegations of child sexual abuse against church personnel to civil authorities. In addition, dioceses will be required to cooperate with investigators when the child is no longer a minor. Safeguards would prevent church superiors from shuffling problem clerics from parish to parish, a practice that has allowed pedophile priests to thrive and has cost the church untold millions in legal judgments -- not to mention its moral authority and credibility.
Divisions have emerged, however, over the issue of expelling violators from the priesthood. Under the plan, the bishops would ask the Vatican to quickly defrock any priest who sexually abuses a child in the future -- and all offenders who have violated children more than once in the past. For priests and deacons who have been accused of just one offense in the past, a diocesan review board -- composed of a majority of lay people -- would determine if the cleric is fit to serve in public ministry.
Some critics want a "zero tolerance" policy both for abusers and for their superiors, including bishops, who fail to act to protect victims. In addition, the zero tolerance proposal has provoked heated discussion over Catholic tenets of forgiveness and absolution for one's sins after heartfelt confession. Other proposals will likely be considered.
We see a solution to this crisis. And like 17 years ago, the focus for reform emanates from Louisiana.
In January, alarmed over reports that Louisiana has the nation's highest number of prisoners per capita, the bishops of all seven dioceses urged the state to adopt a new approach to crime and punishment called "restorative justice." The concept "appropriately punishes the offender, offers the chance for rehabilitation and atones for the harm done to the victims," the bishops said. "The appropriate punishment redresses the harm done to the victims, their families and the wider society and both rehabilitates offenders and restores them to their families."
The statement continues: "Victims need to know that offenders have come to grips with their responsibility and are willing to make amends. Offenders need to acknowledge their responsibility and be willing to be rehabilitated and to make amends to the victims, their families and the wider community. Society needs to experience that the right order, which has been violated, has been restored."
The bishops' statement includes concrete recommendations, such as supporting the National Victims Bill of Rights, higher pay and better training for prison officers, and providing appropriate opportunities for victims and families to meet with repentant offenders.
Directly addressing crime victims and their families, the bishops said: "You have suffered greatly and paid a great price at the hands of those who violated your dignity and rights. ... We encourage you to move beyond feelings of vengeance." To Louisiana prisoners, the bishops said that to become free of sin, the inmates must express "genuine repentance" for their crimes and take "concrete action to make restoration" to their victims. Forgiveness does not mean the offender will forego consequences.
In our view, a "zero tolerance" policy that includes the concepts of "restorative justice" would help the church squarely confront criticisms that it has treated child sexual abuse too much as a moral failing and not enough as a criminal act. Equally important, restorative justice acknowledges that sex offenders should face criminal prosecution.
Finally, priests and deacons who come forward and cooperate with civil authorities should receive special consideration by state and church officials as candidates for faith-based restorative justice programs now operating in Louisiana prisons. A prison ministry might be a good first step toward ending what New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes has called the church's "hour of darkness."