The most astonishing aspect of the scandal is that by the mid-1980s the Catholic bishops knew the problem they faced, but have essentially declined to do much of anything about it ever since. In 1984, the National Catholic Reporter broke the story of the nation's first major pedophile scandal to involve an American priest, Father Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La.
This was around the time that psychiatric evidence on pedophiles was falling into place: Most pedophiles aren't people who slip now and then; they are career predators who will never stop. Concern led to a careful secret report on the priest-pedophile problem and how to frame a national policy to cope with it. It was prepared for the bishops, but they refused to accept it.
One of the few small reforms since then was installed in Chicago by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. He set up a nine-member board to investigate sexual abuse charges against priests. Only three of the nine could be priests themselves. The remaining six were Catholic laymen and laywomen and had to include one victim of previous priest abuse and one parent of a child victim. This structure prevented the clergy, bonded by training and common experience, from controlling investigations of their own.
A greater role for ordinary Catholics may be part of the reform that must come. All churches have pedophile problems, but scandals tend to be rarer in Protestant churches because leaders of congregations vet the candidates before they are called. They ask why he or she left the previous post and under what conditions. Catholic parishioners may now seek a similar role in checking out new priests before they are named.
The sad truth is that the bishops have spent a great deal of time and money on damage control and image-making, with very little attention to the severe damage renegade priests are inflicting on the young. When a diocesan official shows up at the home of an abused child, all too often the goal is to deflect attention from the crime and talk the parents into concern for the church's loss of face if the story ever got out.
Along the way, there has been some awful legal maneuvering and hairsplitting. In Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop Edward Egan, now cardinal-archbishop of New York, tried to argue that his priests were "independent contractors" working for parishes and thus not the legal responsibility of the diocese in sex-abuse cases.
What's missing is an expression of clear and powerful moral attention to this problem. By now it's obvious that the Catholic Church has suffered a great loss of moral authority. It can't recoup that loss until it deals convincingly with the terrible evils wrought by its priests.