What was your reasoning for urging the Conference of Major Superiors this week to reconsider last month's decision?

We believe redemption is important, but that an individual who savages a child commits a mortal sin and violates the most serious laws of the United States. Such a person should not be doing what they were doing to put them into the position of hurting others. We think whatever is good for parish priests and the local bishop is good for those who teach and work with the young in religious orders. We think it's better to have one standard and one shoe to fit all feet. And we thought, well, a third of the priests out there are members of religious orders.

It's especially troubling when you consider that many states are changing their statutes of limitation and waiving statutes of limitation for sexual felonies against the young until that person is of age plus one year. So you have the potential of having an indicted felon under the civil law actively engaging in ministry and sanctioned to do so by the canon law. I can't imagine that the church law would be less onerous than the civil law when applied to monstrous crimes like sexual abuse. That was our reasoning and we just truthfully followed the bishops' lead.

But some of the dioceses are saying that they can't comply with the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People] unless the Vatican tells them to.

My understanding is that the Charter is not on appeal or on review, but the norms are. So the issue of how far back you can go may well be reviewed and revised by the Vatican. But until the time comes, and it hopefully will not come, it is the view of the bishops and the cardinals that we should err on the side of firmness, and if we're reversed [by the Vatican] we're reversed. And I think the religious superiors should take a similar position. You know, it's not a harsh position. We're not saying you're not a priest. We're saying that because of the monstrosity of your act we're not going to continue to permit you to peddle your wares on earth. And I don't think that's harsh considering--I mean, to listen to the victims, it is stunning to me. I think we need to do that to really appreciate the horror. We heard a mother and father talk about the suicide of their child. That's astonishing. The best thing in the face of all this evil is to err on the side of toughness and not on the side of forgiveness.

The board, from a political perspective, runs the spectrum of liberal and conservative, but we're all solidly in support of a tough, no-nonsense approach to this conduct, because we think this is as grave a threat to the faithful as anything since the Protestant Reformation. I was in Nevada over the weekend, and the man I was having dinner with is chairman of one of the major philanthropic foundations in the United States, and he said "Both my kids married Catholics and all my grandchildren are Catholic and they're all in parochial schools, but because of this scandal our children are removing their kids from parochial school." That's anecdotal, but I've heard that from my own son-in-law, who's 30 and who has a little baby girl. He's a Presbyterian, but he said if we had a son I would not permit him to be an altar boy. Well, you know, my introduction to the sublime and religious and eternal was as an altar boy. I mean, this is just very, very bad.

Why did you choose to become a Catholic, and stay with it?

My life as a Catholic has been a warm and wonderful experience. I've gone to elementary school, middle school, and college at Catholic schools. Some of the best friends I made were Augustinians and Jesuits. I come from a place that has very tiny population of Catholics, but the people were decent, hard-working and industrious exemplars. This horror is something that is beyond comprehension to me. As I said to Bishop Gregory when he called on me, "The Devil has gotten in the door. Who let him in? How did this happen?" It's an astonishing embarrassment.

You say this is as gripping a tragedy as the Protestant Reformation. It feels that way here in the United States, but do you think it is actually that tragic worldwide?

I was in Ireland recently, and I met with the two chairs of the Irish review board, and in the course of that conversation, the chairs said to me, "We have lost a generation of young Catholics because of this." The cynicism and the suspicion and the contempt that has come down on the church as a result of this scandal is unfathomable, and that's why none of us on the commission has a desire to be prelates or priests, but we are lay Catholics who say we cannot tolerate this abuse. And the bishops have asked us to implement their policies, and we're happy to do so because we care so much about the faith.