- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

With a tangle of legalisms and contradictory qualifiers, the statement by U.S. Catholic Church leaders on pedophilia reminded me of the classic definition of a camel: a horse designed by committee. But that would be an insult to camels.

Camels, at least, seem to know what they are. The communique by the 12 American cardinals and three senior U.S. clergymen after their hastily called two-day meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome last week does not seem to quite know what it is.

I expected a certain amount of waffling and spin, just not this much. In some places, the statement expresses proper outrage. In others, it seems to grasp for extenuating circumstances.

The cardinals wanted desperately to sound like they were taking action on the scandal that has aroused anger and concern across the nation. But the mighty church does not turn swiftly in the waters. Change comes slowly. So, apparently, do hard decisions.

Nor do the mighty cardinals easily agree, now that Pope John Paul II for the first time has described child sexual abuse as a "crime," on exactly how they should fight that crime. The biggest divisions in the Rome meeting reportedly centered on efforts to balance concerns for the victim with protecting an accused priest's right to due process.

That concern is not only understandable, but essential. Church leaders easily remember cases like the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, widely respected archbishop of Chicago, who was falsely accused of molestation by a young man who later recanted.

No, this is no time for witch hunts, but it is an important time to have moral clarity.

For example, it is important to remember why society has declared the molestation of minors to be a crime. We want to protect children, so we pass laws that make their molestation a very serious crime. This includes teen-age children, despite the cardinals' awkward efforts to minimize that glaring fact.

"Attention was drawn," the statement said, "to the fact that almost all of the cases involved adolescents and therefore were not cases of true pedophilia."

No? How about statutory rape? Still serious?

Well, the practical choices are not simple, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters, because there is a big difference "between a moral monster like [former Boston priest John] Geoghan, who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion, and someone who perhaps under the influence of alcohol engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection."

Both are crimes, he acknowledged, but "in terms of the possibility for a reform of one's life, they're two very different sets of circumstances."

Yes, there is a difference. Geoghan is now serving a nine- to 10-year prison sentence for molesting one child, and he has been accused of abusing more than 130 others. But crime with an underage youth is a crime no matter who commits it, lay people or clergy. One should not have to be a Geoghan to have one's crimes taken seriously.

Two other astonishing words were particularly revealing in the statement: "notorious" and "serial."

The leaders proposed accelerated procedures to defrock any priest who "has become notorious and is guilty of serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

Now what is that supposed to mean? Is the pedophiliac priest the problem? Or is he a problem only after he becomes "notorious," perhaps to the point of generating bad publicity?

And how many molestations against minors does one have to commit to be considered "serial"? Such words obviously describe a monster like John Geoghan, the former Boston priest. But what about one-time offenders? Or two? Will they be reported to police? Will the person at least be moved away from contact with children while an investigation, internal or external, proceeds?

In less egregious cases, church leaders told reporters later, a bishop would have discretion to seek a quickened expulsion if he felt there were a future threat to minors.

Of course, bishops have that discretion now, and it did not prevent the church's current pain a scandal in which some known pedophile priests were merely reassigned to places where they could make new contacts with new children.

As the bishops prepare for their June meeting, they have a lot to think about. How they manage their own priestly assignments is their business. How they manage crimes against children is everybody's business. No one should expect moral perfection from church leaders. Moral clarity will do just fine.

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