- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Protestants and others have to think twice before getting into the pedophile controversy now racking the Roman Catholic priesthood. But the abuse of children, anyone's children, no matter who abuses them, is an offense not only against the church but against society.

Some critics use this as an opportunity to revel in criticism. Only yesterday some of the people who are the loudest in their rebuke of the Catholic Church were insisting, in another context, that sex was a private matter and we had no right to judge a man for what he does after office hours.

Protestants have had their own spectacular sex scandals, of course, though Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker hit on grown-ups, not children, and Mr. Swaggart even had the grace, if we can call it that, to pick up $25-an-hour hookers on one of the cheesiest streets of New Orleans. The Rev. Jesse Jackson did it in his briefs (or probably out of his briefs) and not in his clerical collar, since he usually doesn't wear one, and the Jackson missus probably proved that some birds are much less forgiving than cardinals.

Besides, the pedophile-priest scandal is not actually a religious controversy. There's no dispute over faith and practice, and the controversy, sordid and squalid as it is, bears no reflection on the teachings of Christ or the Roman Church. But neither the pope nor the princes of his church seem to get it.

The pope is a good man whose influence for good in the world has put everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike, in his debt. His uncompromising stands for principle, first against the communist colossus and then against aggressive secularism, has won the admiration of all men of good will.

His emphasis in the present scandal on the power of redemption is exactly what we expect of a man of faith. Nevertheless, the scandal has gone beyond the authority of the pope and his church. It's only a matter of time before it becomes a police matter, probably sooner than later. Grand juries and trial lawyers are not far behind.

Several of the cardinals have proposed guidelines which they believe, no doubt sincerely, are "tough," but their definition of "tough" is not the definition most of the rest of us would use. They propose defrocking "notorious" priests who commit "serial" abuses of children, and punishment of other priests who may be a threat to children. But why should they wait until a priest becomes "notorious"? And why deal only with "serial" abuses? The rest of us figure that even one abuse of a child is enough to take a man out of his frock and put him in a pair of prison pants.

"We regret," the cardinals said, "that episcopal [i.e., bishops] oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal." The cardinals must be dedicated to the welfare of their church, but preserving "the church from this scandal" will strike a lot of parents as putting second things first. The welfare of the children entrusted to the church should be the first concern.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the newly installed bishop of the Diocese of Washington, is one of the cardinals who advocates a more stringent response. He thinks the cardinals are likely to adopt a "one strike and you're out" policy when the American bishops meet in Dallas in June. But a close reading of his remarks and the remarks of all the cardinals will be read for both the words and what may be written between the lines is enough to raise an eyebrow: "Once the Holy Father says there is no place in the priestly ministry for someone who harms children, then you have to work from there."

But why should thoughtful men have to be told by the pope that there is no place in a ministry of priests, parsons, rabbis or imams or anyone else for someone who harms children? More reassuring is Cardinal McCarrick's farther-reaching proposal for a national church policy on child abuse.

Such a policy would place priests accused of such abuse on leave while the charges are investigated; informing the police of suspected cases of child abuse; sending accused priests away for treatment, and setting up diocesan review boards of laymen as well as clergymen.

But other cardinals don't want to be quite so forceful. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago concedes that most of his colleagues support "zero tolerance" for now, but, he says, "I am in favor of rehabilitation." That sounds good, and in line with John Paul's counsel of redemption, but the fact is that rehabilitation of sex offenders doesn't work. Sexual abusers of children can't be rehabilitated. In secular terms, they can't be redeemed. Parents understand this. If public confidence is to be restored to one of society's most valuable institutions, priests must understand it, too.

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