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The crisis in the Catholic Church started as a sex scandal the way Watergate started as a burglary: What followed has become the real scandal. We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks.

Many bishops still do not understand that it is less the actions of pedophile priests than their inaction in the face of them that is now the issue. During Good Friday and Easter services, the bishops repeatedly begged forgiveness for the pedophiles' bad deeds. But none of the three cardinals at the heart of this scandal--Bernard Law in Boston, Edward Egan in New York, and Roger Mahony in Los Angeles--begged forgiveness for their own sins of negligence. To this day, their statements are filled with prevarications. Cardinal Egan wrote in a letter read at Masses last weekend: "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry." Note the distance between the word "mistakes" and the pronoun "I."

This is not the voice of moral clarity. The average Catholic churchgoer understands that no amount of psychological screening can guarantee that a pedophile won't sneak through and become a priest. What the churchgoer cannot fathom is this: Why, when confronted with such perversion, did the bishops not react with appropriate--that is to say, human--empathy? Page after page of depositions demonstrate that these men of the cloth saw the victims of sexual abuse not as children of God, but as potential liabilities. And why, to this day, do the bishops seem incapable of speaking candidly? Why do they still sound like spinmeisters rather than spiritual guides? The answers are not comforting.

The first reason is perhaps the easiest to understand. If the bishops have responded like attorneys trying to protect the assets of a corporation, that is because lawyers and insurance companies are telling the bishops how to respond. Like many people, the bishops have forgotten that the lawyers work for them, and not the other way around. The Church's potential financial liability is enormous and, now that insurance companies are no longer shouldering part of the burden, that liability is growing. "The bishops look like tobacco executives fifteen years ago, still denying that tobacco is addictive. But in the long run, all that denial does not save a penny. Whatever you have already done, you will pay for," says Loyola Marymount University Professor of Finance Paul Schulte. He's right. In the long run, denial will not help the bishops financially, but it is costing them what little moral capital they have left. And that is a price the Church cannot afford, because the Church is not a corporation. A Catholic does not bring his three-day-old child to IBM to be welcomed into the world, nor does he call his attorney "Father." Multimillion-dollar payouts to victims don't threaten the Church nearly as much as does the further loss of confidence in the moral compass of its bishops.

The second reason for the bishops' inaction is clericalism. In The Irish Times, Father Thomas Doyle, O.P., wrote: "There is a solid principle in political science that says the governing elite of an organisation will eventually think that it is the organisation. That's a mistake that the Catholic bishops have made: thinking that they alone are the church." The U.S. bishops and clergy inherited an awesome role from the immigrant Catholic ghetto. Often the only educated member of the subculture, the priest was also the doctor, the teacher, the lawyer. His advice was often sought and almost always taken. Having Father over for dinner was the social highlight of the year. Bishops were accountable to those above them: the pope and God--and no one else. The role of the people was "to pray, pay, and obey."

In addition to this lack of accountability, the careerist ambitions of some bishops inclined them to sweep scandals under the rug. In normal times, one advances through a complex hierarchy by avoiding controversy, not addressing it. In 1985, for example, while serving at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Father Doyle drafted a report on the potential for pedophilia cases to bankrupt the Church; for his effort, he was exiled to a chaplaincy in the military. Moreover, the "old boy" network clearly clouded the judgment of those in authority. If Father Paul Shanley and Bishop John McCormack had not been seminary classmates, it is doubtful Shanley would have been kept on board after he gave a speech endorsing "man-boy" love. The normally humane desire to protect one's friends and colleagues, mixed with a desire to avoid controversy, encouraged bishops to ignore the moral enormity in their midst.