By Friday night, hundreds of U.S. bishops hope to end two days of deliberations by issuing a new, national policy to reform the church's handling of abuse allegations. Then, they pray, the storm that has raged around them for months will subside at last.
Atop the list of issues is zero tolerance for abusers - specifically whether to allow priests who molested one minor in the past, but no more than that, to stay in the clergy under tight restrictions. "For the integrity of the church leadership, this is the most important meeting they've ever had," says Jay P. Dolan, a University of Notre Dame historian who thinks this gathering far overshadows any other since the nation's bishops began meeting regularly in 1919. "The world is watching, the Catholic world and non-Catholics as well," says Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City, one of eight prelates on the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.
He's not exaggerating. There will be roughly three media staffers for each bishop, with 740 journalists granted credentials by a June 1 cutoff and 150 latecomers turned away. A year ago, the bishops' meeting in Atlanta attracted a mere handful. In many other nations, and at the Vatican, bishops only confer behind closed doors. Here the sessions will be public except for a confidential discussion Thursday afternoon.
Catholic caucuses left and right will be out in force, staging media panels and candlelight vigils and lobbying hard. Civil disobedience at the tightly secured meeting hotel is a possibility. Overall, the atmosphere is in keeping with the sense Catholics have of the church being under siege in recent months.
Three bishops have been forced to resign this year following sexual misconduct accusations, including J. Kendrick Williams of Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday. Nearly 250 priests have resigned or been suspended, victims have filed at least 300 civil lawsuits and district attorneys have weighed criminal charges. Two priests have committed suicide after being accused of abuse and another was shot.
Anguished parishioners have met in church basements while angrier ones picketed Cardinal Bernard Law's Boston cathedral demanding his resignation. Ecclesiastical matters have become the fare of talk radio, political cartoonists and late-night comedians as well as sober editorial writers. It's a crisis of the bishops' own making, as the first draft policy from the Ad Hoc Committee - which will sift last-minute changes to the document Wednesday - mildly acknowledges.
The problem is not just that clergy molested minors - that happens in other faiths and professions. But many bishops covered up, bumbled and reassigned abusers to new parishes where they abused yet again. While abuse claims have surfaced continually since the 1980s, it was the news in January that Boston church officials did little more than shuttle serial pedophile John Geoghan from parish to parish that caused the crisis to explode nationwide.
The leader of the American prelates, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., opens the meeting Thursday with a presidential address. Next come scheduled talks from lay Catholics including victims of priestly molesters - an extraordinary occurrence.
The Ad Hoc Committee released its reform "charter" and a separate list of legal "norms" that require Vatican approval June 4, giving bishops a narrow time window to submit amendments. The proposals include zero tolerance for anyone found guilty of abuse in the future and a two-strikes-you're-out policy for past abusers.
Parishioners' reactions to the committee's plan this past week have fallen into three categories. Conservatives believe the bishops must impose tighter discipline, strictly upholding celibacy and ousting actively gay priests and seminarians. "If they don't address active homosexuals in the priesthood then they're in denial," asserts Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Crisis magazine. "It's not a pedophile crisis," he believes, but a crisis of Catholic discipline and morals.
Liberal activists believe radical reforms like admitting women and married men to the priesthood must be addressed, later if not this week, and say homosexuals should not be scapegoated. A third group wants to sharpen the policy on the table. For instance, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Tuesday that the bishops should petition the Vatican to remove any of their number who transferred a known offender. Said SNAP member Mark Vincent Serrano on Tuesday: "We are hoping that Dallas is not the end of this crisis but the beginning of a resolution."