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One Lapse Is One Too Many

June 06, 2002

Redemption is a noble ideal for individuals and institutions. On Tuesday, a committee of American Catholic bishops stepped toward that goal with a vaguely worded apology and the most specific proposal to date for dealing with the sexual abuse that has scandalized their faith.

Now, for the church to fully redeem itself in the public's mind, the bishops must reconsider the nature of the redemption to which a priest who has violated an innocent child should be entitled. They think a past abuser should have one chance to prove that he has been rehabilitated. We agree that even child molesters, after release from prison or other appropriate punishment, deserve a second chance to live a virtuous life--so long as they earn their living on a Gulf Coast oil rig or in some other job where they won't have access to and authority over more potential victims.

The bishops will vote on the proposal next week at a meeting in Dallas. Many positive elements of the plan merit strong support, including a call for the church to turn over any new allegations of sexual abuse against minors to civil authorities for investigation. The plan calls for defrocking any priest who commits sexual abuse after the policy is in place. But priests found to have molested only one child in the past, who have undergone psychological treatment and whose cases were favorably reviewed by a board that includes lay members, could remain in the priesthood.

We hope the bishops will amend the plan next week and hold priests to the same standards as public schoolteachers. One reason the church has been hemorrhaging credibility since the scandal began is because its leaders too often seem to view the priests rather than the children as the victims. The plan's willingness to let one instance of abuse slide suggests that the bishops remain confused in their priorities.

A decade ago, U.S. bishops discussed a similar if even less restrictive plan, but no meaningful structural change came about. Had a firm policy on pedophilia and a system of accountability been put in place, the church might have avoided this potentially schismatic crisis.

The new plan will most likely be amended in Dallas. Hopefully the bishops will do away with the provision that bets so recklessly on redemption. Those who call for "flexibility" in dealing with one-time offenders should keep in mind that a victim has no second chance.

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