You would think the U.S. Catholic bishops couldn't do one more thing to alienate the faithful. While their Dallas meeting was in some ways a positive moment for the church, many people are still unhappy with them. Victims say the bishops didn't go far enough because they stopped short of calling for laicization for all offenders. Some priests feel they've been scapegoated, with the bishops setting policy for priests' removal when nothing was done about bishops who moved abusing clergy around or paid out hush money. Some bishops and priests alike voiced strong opposition to the new norms' "one strike you're out" stance that more than one bishop said would make his priests feel he had sold them out. Many laity still feel betrayed, angry or disappointed.

Monastery as Last Resort
When Shakespeare has Hamlet tell Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery!" he was reflecting a mindset of the day: Monasteries were convenient hiding places for people disappointed in love, for unmarriageable daughters, for illegitimate sons one wanted to keep from view or from contending for the throne, and for other "undesirables."

It was common in the Middle Ages for children born with disabilities (or sometimes just want of good looks!) to be "donated" to monastic communities, whose families paid a dowry or lifetime fee for their upkeep.
So who's left to take umbrage at what the bishops said and did in Dallas?

Try monks.

What do the bishops plan to do with priests who are removed from ministry and who cannot function as priests because their history of sex abuse of minors? One solution, offered by several bishops, both in news conferences prior to Dallas and in comments from the floor during their discussion of their proposed charter, was to send the offending priests to a monastery.

If anything reinforced a growing conviction that the bishops just weren't thinking, that comment did it. Not only did the bishops apparently not run their suggestion by any actual communities of monastic men before they made it, but, some suggest, they also reveal their ignorance about religious life in general and monastic life in particular.

NCR spoke with top leadership of more than a half dozen men's monastic communities around the country. All of those interviewed voiced understanding for the bishops' difficult situation. But they were also clear that that the prospect of making their monasteries the dumping ground for problem priests just wouldn't fly. And several said the idea itself was downright offensive.

`They're just clueless'

"It certainly makes me wonder what kind of theology of religious life the bishops are operating out of," said one Trappist abbot who asked not to have his name or his community identified. "It seems, that like many people, they're just clueless about what monastic life is."

By suggesting that sex abusers be sent to monasteries, the abbot continued, the bishops are "buying into the old stereotypes ...that we live this medieval, idyllic and isolated life, and that a person's problems disappear when he comes here."

Instead, the Trappist said, even a "person of good will who has a genuine vocation will have one heck of a time making it. But [sex offenders] will have major, deep-seated psychological problems, probably be dealing with depression and a whole package of issues. This is certainly not the place to get them the long-term help they need."

But, say the bishop calls and asks you to consider it. Would you bring his request to the community? The abbot laughed. "Not on your life! They'd shoot me!"

"I'd find a respectful and diplomatic way to decline," he said, "but I would say very clearly, `Bishop, that's a very, very bad idea.' ''

Another Trappist abbot concurred. Abbot Damian Carr heads one of the order's largest U.S. houses, St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., home to 65 monks. "I'd be mighty surprised that you'd pick up from [any monastic community] that this is a viable solution," he told NCR.

There is, of course some historical precedent for the bishops' suggestion. Carr noted that for centuries, monasteries were known as refugium peccatorum -- a place of refuge for sinners, where people often came to live among the monastic community in repentance and penance for sinful deeds.