The best that can be said about the extraordinary two-day meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul II and the American cardinals is that everyone now clearly understands the extent of the sexual abuse and pedophilia problem within the U.S. Catholic Church. But those Catholics who were expecting a plan of action from the Vatican for dealing with abusive clergy had to have been disappointed.
To be sure, the pope and his cardinals expressed all the right sentiments, such as John Paul's statement that there is no place in the priesthood for "those who would harm the young," but the meeting fell far short of the kind of unequivocal stand that many people expected from the church's hierarchy.
They could have found guidance in the New Testament, Matthew 18:6: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
In place of a millstone, the pope should have adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for sexually abusive or pedophile priests. The idea that indulging in such sinful and criminal behavior once may be acceptable if the priest is repentant and undergoes treatment is fatuous because there is a difference between such a crime being committed by a lay person and that being committed by an individual whose life is first and foremost dedicated to God and whose behavior is supposed to be cloaked in spirituality.
But the leaders of the American Catholic Church still have an opportunity to implement a "one strike and you're out" policy -- at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June.
As the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the Catholic journal First Things told the Washington Post, " ... what we need in Dallas is bishops on their knees [confessing] their sins, first of all to God, then to the Catholic people and then to the world, because as a body ... they have been negligent."
Indeed, Pope John Paul II's failure to publicly address the accusations of a cover-up leveled against Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York has fed the perception that while priests are being relieved of their duties and, in some rare cases, being defrocked, bishops who were less then forthright in dealing with the allegations are being given a pass.
"The fact is, most Catholic laity are angrier at the bishops than they are at the predatory priests," the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame, told the Post. "In this crisis, the people know that the bishops mishandled it badly and in some cases actually covered up criminal behavior, put children in harm's way."
What the pope failed to do during his meeting with the American cardinals in Rome, the conference of bishops should do in their meeting in June: form an independent panel of clergy, lay Catholics and legal experts to investigate the accusations that have been made against bishops in the United States.