Faced with millions of irate followers and a cascade of media scrutiny, the U.S. Catholic bishops were in what could only be described as a near-panic when they met in June to deal with the clergy sexual abuse crisis. They frantically approved the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which created a "one strike, you're out" policy for getting rid of errant priests and also provided for new boards composed of lay people to evaluate allegations. At the time, some bishops were still defensive-sitting stone-faced through the meeting and ignoring reporter's questions-as they absorbed the full impact of the public's reaction.

After this week, however, they may finally be coming to grips with their role in allowing the scandal to fester for 30 years. During their November meeting in Washington, bishop after bishop stood during debates to wrestle with forgiveness of priests, justice for victims, and accountability for themselves. There was even a fleeting mention of purgatory as an example of how sincerely reformed sinners must still pay a price for their misdeeds.

As expected, they approved a revised plan that provides for permanent removal from ministry of any priest found guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor. But they also passed a separate document dealing with their own accountability-which calls for the prelates to "fraternally correct" brother bishops who are not making the abuse rules stick. Meanwhile, several bishops argued that the new plan will force a reckoning for each of them-because it makes them give up their decades-long practices of judging accused priests on a case-by-case basis and lessening punishments for priests they believed had reformed. Under the new plan, they must report all abuse cases to Rome and hold church trials.

Giving up this power is "the least we can do for having misused it before," said Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas. The church needs "strong, accurate, clear laws that will remove from us the kinds of biases that are human and real."

Before the June meeting, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, he and other bishops hoped there might be a "possibility of a forgiveness" that would allow contrite priests to go back to their ministry. "We don't have that [possibility] anymore... it's important for us to understand that," McCarrick said.

"In limiting our own discretionary authority in this way," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said, "we find ourselves humbled as bishops and as servants of the Lord." Since "the overwhelming majority of cases--from 15, 20, or even 30 years ago--are not actionable in a criminal court," he said, "the importance of the church herself doing justice becomes ever more important."

Critics, naturally, don't see it this way. They contend the revised rules dilute the power of the lay review boards-mandated at the Dallas meeting--and still give individual bishops too much control over whether priests are suspended. They also say that church trials could "reimpose the shroud of pathological secrecy" on cases too old to prosecute in civil court, according to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer.

A handful of bishops were still having a hard time coming to grips with the new reality. During one discussion, Bishop Michael Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., asked if there were any provisions in the new plan that would allow a bishop to reinstate a priest "after a demonstration of true conversion." Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn also wondered if the norms left any "sliver of hope for a priest who's confessed his delinquency."

No, said Cardinal George. Bishops "no longer have the discretion or authority to make that decision on his own" and must report the offense to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Even allowing for repentance and God's forgiveness, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., said that "no one has the right to be a public minister. We are called to it" and that those who abuse children "have forfeited the call to ministry."

Gettelfinger pressed on, saying that a priest in his diocese had publicly confessed his action to his parish, where there was "enormous support and acceptance that he could continue as pastor." He added that Jesus not only forgave Peter, but he also made him "a leader of the church."

Maybe so, but "we're the church that talks about purgatory," said Galante. Even repentant sinners must make amends and suffer penalties, he said. "Yes, the priest is forgiven, but he's disrupted the moral balance, and his penance may be that he cannot serve as a priest again."

Then Sullivan moved the discussion further into the tricky territory of forgiveness. He wondered if there was a way to bring victims and abusers together in a reconciliation process, saying "victims will never have peace until they too can forgive."

Cardinal George wouldn't have it. Bishops "are not in a position to demand that victims forgive...[or] to say that since the priest has been forgiven, there will be no consequences."

Outside the meeting, a spokeswoman for the liberal Catholic activist group Call to Action agreed. "No one has a problem with reconciliation. As Christians, it's what we're called to do," said Claire Noonan. But there are some behaviors that are "so egregious" that a man can no longer act as a priest, she said. "They can be reconciled to the community in other ways."

For Mary Grant of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), forgiveness is beside the point: "I don't think I have to forgive the perpetrator to heal--my energy can be better used in protecting children."

Michael Ross, also of SNAP, feels that justice outweighs other considerations: "Without justice it's hard to understand that [abusers are] truly sorry." He says that his abuser also molested 21 other people, and that the ripple effect of abuse goes far beyond what would be covered by individual repentance or a single request for forgiveness. "In order for me to even consider forgiving, [the priest would] have to ask forgiveness not only of those 21 people, but also of their families. Of the dog that was kicked because the kid was just abused and he didn't know why."

SNAP's national leader, David Clohessy, said the protection of children always trumps the forgiveness of adults. Responding to Gettelfinger's reference to Jesus forgiving Peter, Clohessy said, "Peter never molested a child."

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