Now for the hard work

April 26, 2002

IF AMERICA'S cardinals take credit for a proposal to defrock the "notorious" priests, the serial abusers who sexually molest children, they shouldn't. That was the least anyone would have expected from the country's top Catholic prelates, who just concluded an unprecedented session on the problem with Vatican leaders.

It's the punishment of priests who haven't yet made a name for themselves, the clerics who are guilty all the same, that causes concern. Can the church leadership assure parishioners that the priest caught molesting once or twice isn't a serial abuser? That's the dilemma facing the U.S. Conference of Bishops when it meets in June to formalize the proposals put forth in the Rome meeting.

After weeks of virtual silence on a subject that has rocked the American church, Pope John Paul II strongly denounced as a sin and a crime the sexual abuse of children by priests -- a message that needed to be sent.

American bishops now have no reason not to move ahead forthrightly and adopt a policy that would require dioceses to report suspected child abusers to civil authorities.

But the matter of an abusive priest's future ministry is more problematic. The pope reminded his fellow priests of the power of redemption, but that should not supersede the safety of children or adolescents. First offenders who have confronted their demons, served their time and turned their lives around can serve God and the church in ministries that have nothing to do with young people. And serve the church well.

The cardinals were right to stay focused on sexual molestation of minors, even if only a handful of the church's 43,000 priests have been implicated in the abuse. The responsibility now rests with the bishops to develop policies that will protect children while affording priests their due-process rights. A restoration of the leadership's credibility, badly damaged as it is, depends on it.

The cardinals' final communiquM-i from the Rome meeting rightly discussed national standards, disciplinary action and a review of seminary requirements. But it forgot to mention a critical element of any solution to the problem: the laity. Catholics like Luise Dittrich, James Post and Dr. James Muller, who are part of a grass-roots movement, Voice of the Faithful, came together to support victims of abuse and priests of integrity, and to work for "structural change in the church."

The group began with about 30 people in January; today it counts 2,500 supporters in 40 states and 20 countries. Their voices can ensure that the power of the church rests with the faithful and not just the clerical elite.

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