WASHINGTON — The child abuse crisis to which Pope John Paul II and the American cardinals addressed themselves this week in Rome was the latest, and perhaps most unsettling, of a series of crises of confidence in the bedrock institutions of our society.
Trust in government was long since undermined by Vietnam War body counts and by the Watergate cover-up, and belief in the personal character of the president was damaged by the behavior of Bill Clinton.
Confidence in the news media has suffered from creeping skepticism about their objectivity and reward structure.
And the Enron scandal has exploded the assumption of regularity that underpinned our financial institutions.
But the spreading stain of sexual abuse by priests, unchecked for years by prelates, has shaken the faith of believers in faith itself. And when the long-withheld details began to emerge, it was hard to know whether the hierarchy was repenting of sin or dealing in damage control as donations dropped off and lawsuits threatened up to a billion dollars in costs to the church.
Some of the defensive rhetoric one heard sounded familiar from other stonewall settings. New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, in a letter read in churches, but not by him, said that "mistakes may have been made" about the prompt removal of priests and assistance to their victims.
That use of the don't-blame-me passive voice took me back to President Reagan's 1987 State of the Union address in which he said that "serious mistakes were made" in selling missiles to Iran.
More recently one heard frequent utterances of "mistakes were made" from weaving and ducking figures in Enron and Arthur Andersen.
Now, one has to ask: How much is the church engaged in repentance and how much in damage control? In front of Nigerian priests last weekend, the pontiff said "behavior which might create scandal must be carefully avoided." Was it public scandal or private sin he was worried about?
By Tuesday, when he opened the cardinals' meeting, the pope had a better script. He spoke of "a crime in society ... also an appalling sin in the eyes of God." He said there was no place in the priesthood for "those who would harm the young."
It would've been well to have heard that from the Roman Catholic Church before the coverup failed and the hierarchy had to face its own moment of truth. The new Vatican policy of dismissal for any act of sexual abuse comes very late. It remains to be seen whether shattered faith can be restored.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.