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Amid sex abuse furor, Catholic leaders can rebuild trust

A contemporary adaptation of an old Catholic practice could prevent future sex abuse.

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This kind of safe and supportive environment would allow priests to admit the smaller difficulties they face, and, as trust builds, would encourage them to speak more freely about deeper personal problems. Discussing symptoms can help group members address underlying disorders.

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These meetings could offer a corrective for the all-too-human impulse to act in inappropriate ways from less-than-spiritual motives, prompted by desire for power, out of greed or exaggerated pride, or from the clergy's occupational hazards of loneliness, discouragement, and depression.

Unlike the medieval monks, who were focused on their own efforts to live a more perfect Christian life, the priestly participants in this contemporary practice would have to balance their own needs with the needs of the wider world, especially those of the parish communities that they serve.

Minor problems could be brought out into the open and resolved before any expanded into major scandals. Major problems could be dealt with more quickly and more effectively, before any mutated into actual criminal activity.

Priests would support one another in living out the key values of pastoral outreach: a ministry that does not become manipulation, assistance that does not turn into abuse, silence that does not devolve into secrecy.

A working, contemporary adaptation of the ancient chapter of faults would contribute a great deal to alleviating some of the doubt and isolation that every priest must deal with in the course of his pastoral lifetime.

It would be a step toward a new beginning for the Catholic Church and might save children from the terrible toll of sexual abuse. It would also benefit the local Catholic clergy and demonstrate to the watching world that any papal apology will be backed with tangible action.

Joanne M. Pierce is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.