After watching portions of the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting in Dallas, I was reminded that Napoleon once bragged to a French cardinal that he could destroy the Roman Catholic Church. To which the cardinal confidently chuckled that this was impossible--if 2000 years of clergy hadn't accomplished that goal, nothing could. Despite the mostly mediocre princes of the Church depressingly on display in Dallas--and even the singular obtuseness in Rome--when it comes to the sins of the fathers, the Church will be fine.

Cardinal Law and Archbishop Weakland can't do what Napoleon failed to do. But the first thing to be said about the Dallas document on pedophile priests is that it's similar to campaign finance reform passed by the U.S. Senate: it would be totally unnecessary if people had not abused their power in the first place. If all the bishops had followed the path of Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburg, who met with victims and fought to defrock guilty priests--even though, in one case, it took two tries with the Vatican to remove the offender--nobody would have had to talk about pedophilia in Dallas.

As far as the document goes, it's fine. I suppose I'd have liked the bishops to have made sure that certain less awful forms of human erring and straying on the part of priests, perhaps a single kiss--and I'm not talking about kissing a fourteen-year-old--don't automatically mean the ultimate punishment. Still, I suppose what we really must worry about is not that minor sinners will be swept up in the new rules but that bishops will continue to quietly let those who commit heinous sins and crimes continue to slip through the net.

Like the Clintons, whom we didn't trust around campaign money, we don't quite trust the Church to deal this matter. We demand--and received--stringent rules. As campaign finance legislation could face trouble with the Supreme Court, these rules might face problems in Rome. Let's hope that Rome, however much it usually hesitates to play to public opinion, realizes that it simply must agree to these new rules.

Somebody pointed out that the bishops at the Dallas meeting acted more like senators than bishops. Can't they find a monastery told host their meetings? I'd also prefer that the Church not adopt the language of policy: zero tolerance, etc. One of the worst locutions, and this was before Dallas, was the bishop who said that we must make the Church "a safe environment for children." A friend of mine pointed out that this sounds more like an OSHA official than a bishop.

The other thing that was missing was a real sign of repentance from the bishops. Bishop Wilton Gregory's formal apology was fine, but what about some specifically Catholic show of contrition? I'm only being half facetious when I suggest that Cardinal Law, who enabled some of the most notorious clerical pedophiles to continue to work with children in his archdiocese, consider walking barefooted to Jerusalem. Didn't erring Christians do just that in the Middle Ages?

On Maundy Thursday, Catholic priests wash the feet of laypeople in a show of humility. If Cardinal Law is still the head of the Boston archdiocese during Holy Week 2003, I've got some candidates for him to practice his foot-washing skills on: Father Shanley's and Father Geoghan's victims. That would be real humility.

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