At high noon in Dallas last week the nation's Roman Catholic leaders blinked.
An archbishop had put the opportunity well: "This is a defining moment for us, a moment for us to declare our resolve once and for all ... to root out a cancer in our church."
The bishops did a lot, no question. They did major surgery. But was it radical enough?
Yes indeed, they voted 239-13 for a 3,500-word document, and the haggling has begun about what it really means - haggling that will go on endlessly.
According to the news columns, the document requires the reporting of all claims of sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities, and it establishes a national review board and local advisory panels - good things all. It also strips offending priests of key duties, including interaction with children. But it does not mandate the removal of priests with a history of molesting (even raping) the young (mostly boys). Nor does it seem to raise the bar for the accountability of bishops high enough - if at all.
Going into the Dallas meeting, the cry was for zero tolerance for the sexual sins of Catholic priests against minor parishioners. Instead of zero tolerance, Catholics were given a policy of something less. Not the defrocking of offending priests, not removal from the payroll, but a shuffling to back rooms or to other dioceses. The document reads: "Diocesan policy will provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor - past, present or future - the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry" for "a life of prayer and penance."
No mandated laicization, or forced departure from the church. According to a report in The Washington Post, "Several bishops said today they expect that laicization will be the norm for future cases, but that some past offenders, who are now in their 60s, 70s or 80s, might be allowed to remain priests with no public duties, living out their lives with dignity in monasteries or retirement homes." And according to the outraged head of a Catholic victims' group, many priests kept on the payroll will keep their priestly identity by being called "Father," and "if you retain the title 'Father,' you still have one of the most important tools of the trade of a sexual predator in the church."
Closeting. More special dispensations and exceptions. Zero tolerance watered down to something else - to tolerating in the shadows, and to retirement in "dignity" for the most undignified of behaviors, verily behaviors whereby violating priests denied their victims precisely the dignity accorded them.
Let us be clear. The cliché "only time will tell" applies here: Of course only time will tell how effective what the bishops did in Dallas will be in restoring public and parishioner confidence in the Catholic Church. But the extent of the horror in the nation's foremost institution for civilizational good must not be understated: an estimated 1,500 of the 46,000 priests ministering to 64 million Catholics - on the prowl for sex among the children in the flock.
Such vile acts are sins against Nature, right reason, and the laws of God and men. They irremediably wound their victims. They fracture the trust of the laity in the clergy. Yet church leaders, in an hour, apparently forgiving of promiscuity and predation, voted overwhelmingly to let pederasts and pedophiles stay on church payrolls to work discreetly or to retire with their heads held high.
Tolerance. Forgiveness - isn't that what Christianity today is all about?
Perhaps the church leaders finally could not go with zero tolerance because of the havoc it would wreak in the priestly ranks - already depleted, as are many Protestant ones.
Some parishes will forgive both the offending priests and the bishops. Others - feeling thus uncomforted by the blinking bishops, feeling the problem unsquarely met - will not.
But it's hard to see how the victims will. And it's hard to see how the broad Catholic laity will if it comes to view the Dallas decision the way a community might view a decision by the authorities to maintain a sex offender in their midst - even to keep him on the payroll albeit with modified duties - instead of riding him out of town on a rail.