It was 17 years ago that US Roman Catholic bishops received a strongly worded report from church legal staffproposing they formulate a national plan for dealing with sexual abuse by clergy or face momentous consequences.
Thursday, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathers here in the sun-glazed buckle of the Bible Belt to finally take that step. Procrastination has been costly in thousands of anguished lives, more than $1 billion in settlement costs, and lost credibility of leadership.
For many Catholics distressed by the most wrenching crisis in the history of the American church, the finalization of a tough sexual-abuse policy this week is a crucial step, but only the first in a long process of coming to terms with root causes of the scandal. "It's a historic moment in the US church, and an awful lot is at stake," says William Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "The bishops will resolve the central question of how to protect the kids, but they won't resolve everything."
The faithful are looking to church leaders for other actions that show they understand this is a leadership crisis. "That they have not been accountable to the Catholic public is one of the driving problems," says Mr. Donohue. "There won't be peace until that is addressed."
Recent polls show almost 90 percent of Catholics want officials who reassigned offending priests either to step down or be removed. And many say it's time for new measures of laity accountability.
"There's a big agenda now, but not much will happen at this meeting," says Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington. "A lot of power is at stake, so things won't move too quickly ... but there's a lot of pressure there."
For the next three days, 280 bishops responsible for the 194 US dioceses will listen to advice and then discuss and vote on a national policy to be carried out by each of them. All bishops report directly to the pope, however, and only his imprimatur on the plan can bind them to action.
A few voices from Rome have taken issue in recent weeks with key policy provisions, such as reporting to civil authorities and notifying parishes about offenders. But some Vatican-watchers say US bishops wouldn't move so forcefully without signals from Vatican officials.
Jim Post, a college professor in Boston, thinks US church leaders got what they wanted from the Rome meeting of bishops and archbishops in April: a mandate to develop a policy and a narrow definition of the problem as simply sexual abuse. "They avoided all the other issues, like the bishops' accountability for coverup and the role of the laity," he says. Ever since, the bishops have focused on defining a sexual-abuse policy that would pass muster with an outraged laity. The draft report has won good marks for requiring reporting to civil authorities, doing away with confidentiality agreements, and transferring priests' full records when they are reassigned.
The main issue this week is whether zero tolerance removal from the priesthood for a single offense should be fully embraced, as 77 percent of Catholics demand. The panel that drafted the charter proposes zero tolerance for new cases, but a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy for past offenders. Some bishops and therapists recommend individual handling of past cases. They question whether priests with a single instance of abuse who have presented no problem for decades should be sacrificed.
"Regrettably, yes," Mr. Donohue argues. "It may not be the most just way to end their careers, but the bishops have to do what's in the best interests of the church and the public."
"A total zero tolerance policy represents the minimum any responsible social institution is supposed to meet," insists Ann Barrett Doyle, founder of Coalition of Concerned Catholics. But fixing a policy doesn't get at the root cause, she adds, which is the monopoly of power. "The bishops have lost forever the right to be the sole decisionmaking body in the church if they love the church and the people, they'll work hard to share some of that power."
In the draft policy, lay participation is called for on review boards at the diocesan and national levels, but these members would be appointed by and responsible to the bishops as in the past.
In Dr. Post's view, for the results of Dallas to be credible, the bishops would have to develop enforcement mechanisms involving independent lay commissions and accountability measures for those who engaged in coverups. Close observers say the latter is a touchy matter because evidence suggests a pattern of reassigning offending priests, and it's likely many bishops have participated.
There is little evidence of a readiness to redefine lay roles. For example, although Boston's Archbishop Bernard Law is under extreme public pressures, he has taken a tough stance with local groups organizing for change. And negotiations between the USCCB and survivor groups over an invitation to speak here have been difficult and drawn out.
If the bishops do reach accord on the national charter to protect children and young people, it will be a milestone for the US hierarchy and a welcome day for most Catholics. But what to the clergy will be a major accomplishment, to many lay Catholics is simply the first definitive step. They will begin to press for others. The bishops will hold their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. in November.