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Urban Rhythms

With a Vengeance

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 6/19/2002

Those bishops shocked the heck out of me. I expected them to crumple before the raging public and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexually offending priests. This would have been the politically savvy approach--toss a few wretched, twisted priests to the wolves, let the pack wreak its vengeance, and suddenly the whole long, emotional crisis that has enveloped the church for these many months might have gone away.

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Dallas, did not take the easy way out. They adopted a stern but humane policy whereby a priest found to have committed sexual abuse of a minor will be stripped of all clerical rights and responsibilities and forbidden to engage in any parish work or public ministry. The offending priest will be reported to the authorities and then be expected to lead "a life of prayer and penance" while receiving treatment for his problem. The policy applies to past offenders as well as to those who offend in the future.

"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the national conference.

This policy has certain earmarks of zero tolerance. For example, it follows the one-strike-and-you're-out rule zero-tolerance lovers swear by. But it also allows the offender to get treatment within his church family, which is a mercy that zero-tolerance lovers tend to view with, well, zero tolerance.

I don't know whether the bishops showed great moral courage or timidity by taking this stance. A cynic might note that in one sense they were covering their own rear ends. The mob might not be satisfied with stripping priests of their frocks; the mob might also want to drag down the bishops who conspired to cover up this scandal for so long.

But I prefer to think the best of people. And so, I like to think the bishops have introduced an old-fashioned but largely forgotten concept to the public debate--compassion. Victims may complain that the compassion is being pointed in the wrong direction. They should take their cue from victims of other types of crimes.

I did a lot of reporting on the victim's-rights movement in the early 1980s. Victims started out by complaining that they frequently felt victimized twice--once by the bad guy, and again by the criminal-justice system. In the early days of the movement, their demands were simple. They wanted police, prosecutors, and the courts to treat crime victims with a little respect: Answer victims' questions when they have them. Let them know the status and progress of their cases. Keep them in the loop when decisions are made about plea bargains, sentencing, and other issues. Put some resources into helping them recover from the crimes. Let them be heard.

But the movement ran into the rabid right's lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key ethos. And the rabid right promised victims one thing and one thing only: revenge. So politicians enacted stricter sentences and curtailed parole. Police made more arrests. Prosecutors took more offenders to trial. And judges sentenced more people to prison for longer terms. The inmate population ballooned nationwide, fueling the prison-building boom of the 1980s. Meanwhile, off in a little corner, crime victims found they had the same unmet needs at the end of the '80s that they had in the beginning.

I also did a little reporting on the campaign to get tough on deadbeat dads. Again, mothers began by complaining that the system was like a closed vault. Mothers would hold support orders that were as worthless as Confederate dollars. Mothers would know where the dad was, but no one in the vast state bureaucracy would be bothered to listen.

The deadbeat-dad campaign used a bit of clever legerdemain to motivate politicians and bureaucrats: It made the support order a debt owed to the state rather than to the mother. Suddenly, prosecutors couldn't lock up dads fast enough. But many mothers continue to feel neglected and abused by the system.

The moral of those stories is simple: Revenge is not a compassionate act. Getting tough on crime became an end in itself, and victims still got trampled upon. Locking up dads became the goal rather than the means, and many mothers remain just as poor.

Victims in this sex-abuse scandal might do well to remember that. Zero tolerance would not have given them what they wanted and needed from the church: respect, understanding, restoration. But an institution that has adopted a compassionate policy toward offenders might eventually get around to acting that way toward victims as well.

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