American Catholics are not likely to be convinced that the reforms their bishops voted for in Dallas last week mean anything unless there are resignations in the hierarchy. Surveys by both Gallup and the Wall Street Journal indicate that Catholics want the pope to remove bishops who have reassigned pedophile priests to parish work. The position is logical: if there is to be zero tolerance for offending priests, then there should be zero tolerance for offending bishops.

There apparently weren't enough votes for Cardinal George's proposal that sanctions be applied to bishops too, though he said he expected that it would come up again in November.

It would be hypocritical to expel priest abusers and not expel the bishops who were accessories before and after the fact to their offenses. One strike and you're out should apply to bishops too.

The problem is that it will be hard enough to get the norms which accompany the Dallas charter by the Roman Curia without adding sanctions against bishops to the package. The pope appoints bishops, and no one but the pope, it will be said, can remove them. This pope does not seem likely to remove cardinals from cities like New York and Boston, nor do they seem likely to remove themselves. Until that happens, the surveys suggest, the laity will still remain skeptical.

Despite that problem, the bishops did a good job at Dallas. Unfortunately, their good work is sixteen years too late. If they had not torpedoed the plan submitted to them at St. John's Abbey in 1986 (with Cardinal Law allegedly leading the opposition), this terrible scandal might have been avoided.

The Dallas plan is harsh. There is no room for flexibility in the cases of, say, retired priests who are accused of something that happened four decades ago.

Unfortunately, the laity won't trust bishops any more when they try to be flexible on this problem. Perhaps as the years go on and bishops reestablish credibility, there will be a little more trust for them to make the very rare exception to the rule. Not now.

It would appear that the accused priests has some rights--the right to counsel and the right of appeal. One hopes that they also have the rights to be presumed innocent until proved guilty and to confront their accusers--rights which Americans take for granted, even if canon law does not. One also hopes that there will be clear-cut norms for admissible evidence.

The innocent have been denounced before (like Cardinal Bernardin) and are likely to be denounced again. If the bishops move to the other extreme and begin to assume that a charge is prima facie evidence of guilt (as the media do), then they will open the door to an extended witch hunt--like the right-wing attack on Archbishop Weakland, who, whatever his faults, might have been one of the best bishops in America.

The Dallas charter is not the end of an ignominious chapter in the history of Catholicism, but it might be the beginning of the end. The media are not likely to ease up the pressue. On the contrary, they will search desperately for flaws and weakness. No human reform is ever perfect. This one, especially the roles given to such distinguished laity as Governor Keating and Jus tice Burke in positions of major national responsibility, is better than what might have reasonably been expected six months ago. The commission on which they will serve will in effect monitor bishops in years to come and report on those who do not honor the charter.

I feel a little strange when I praise (even with a cautious two cheers) anything bishops have done. Yet I must admit that this time they have happily surprised me. They surprised me especially in their willingness to listen and learn from the brave victims who had had the courage to come to Dallas and confront them.

Finally, I'm not sure that the Dallas charter would have emerged in its present form if it were not for the leadership of Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, the President of the Conference of Catholi Bishops. Some say that he will almost certainly get the red hat for the success of the Dallas meeting. Others say that the Curia will never forgive him and he will remain in Belleville for the rest of his life. The Curia never forgets.

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