I was a poster child for growing up Catholic. A redheaded altar boy taught by nuns in grammar school and by Jesuits in high school, I was in the seminary for a year, went to a Catholic college, and finished with a doctorate degree from Notre Dame. In my hometown of Jersey City, people still ask, "What parish are you from?" And like me, many of them got married in the same church where they were baptized.

The priests I met in those days were a decent lot, but you might meet a few who fell short: a mean one, a drinker, or one with an eye for the women. But whether it was luck, innocence, or the grace of God, in my youth and young manhood I never met a priest who was a pedophile.

Pedophile priests: The phrase brings instant and visceral reaction: anger, revulsion, fear.

For Catholics, it's a special kind of horror; for all people of goodwill, it's a dual tragedy: the violation of a child and the betrayal of a trust.

No matter where in the spectrum of judgment we place the pedophile, as a sick person or one who calls forth that rare thing in the New Testament, the anger of Christ "But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew, 18:6) our reaction after the rage of discovery is simple but confused. First, help the victim, and then deal with the violator.

But what should we do? And how?

To find some answers, I called some thoughtful friends (devout, rebel, and doubtful Catholics and ex-Catholics) and found an unsurprising unanimity.

A married ex-priest in California, a father of four in Illinois, a mother of two young boys in Massachusetts, a nurse practitioner, a mother of a college-age daughter in New Jersey, and a New York playwright with a just-finished script about pedophilia in New York all demand that the pedophile be stopped and removed instantly and permanently from contact with children.

All of them insist on the same thing: Get the child and his family immediate and effective care.

But it is what they say in tones strong and unequivocal to the Catholic Church's hierarchy that is the most telling: You must stop the cover-up.

The mother of two learned that two cardinals, several pastors, and uncounted priests knew of scores of accusations of pedophilia against now-defrocked priest John Geoghan, and all that these men of the cloth did was to turn a blind eye or ship him off to another parish in Massachusetts.

The ex-priest speaks of friends who are still priests who now feel a blanket of suspicion weighing them down.

Gone now is the image of a wholesome Father Flanagan founding Boys Town to rescue the country's abandoned boys, or of Hollywood's Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley saving kids from the slums though the clean- cut power of sports and song.

Both the college girl's mother and the nurse practitioner speak of their frustration with the Catholic hierarchy's historical eagerness to ignore the moral dirt.

As our conversations progressed, all my respondents, not surprisingly, reached a point where they acknowledged that from all they knew and this is supported by the research pedophilia cannot be cured but only contained. No pill, no psychotherapy, no prayers will do.

Again with unanimity, they showed a pity, sometimes grudging, for the pedophile priest and called for a treatment that would both work on his diseased psyche and keep him forever away from children.

But the doubts linger, and the notes of dismay and cynicism are still heard.

In all the maneuvering and justifying and qualifying about who knew what and when, I can imagine the anguished voice of a violated child who went on a camping trip with "Father" and who has been afraid of the dark ever since.

I can picture the child who can't receive Communion anymore because the hands that would carry the host to his lips are the same ones that touched him.

And when one of these children hears all the lawyers and all the pastors and all the bishops and all their defenders, and when he later remembers that the only thing that happened to "Father" was a transfer to another parish somewhere, can you blame him when he turns back to his private hell and whispers to all those defenders of the establishment Church: "Your actions speak so loudly, I can't hear a word you are saying."

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