Originally published June 16, 2002

Many an American bishop of the Roman Catholic Church will process nobly into his cathedral or a parish church today, wearing his miter, carrying his crosier, and waving to his people.

But after three days of grappling in brutal frankness with the sex-abuse scandals that have periodically plagued the church for nearly two decades, he probably strides up the aisle today just a little more human, a little more humble, than even a Sunday ago.

The man within those robes has just been through a kind of holy hell in Dallas , where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded its semiannual meeting yesterday.

It was an extraordinary meeting on many levels, one that shook – and perhaps subtly altered – the lofty culture of the prelates.

On Friday, a day after they were excoriated by a series of guest speakers for their failures in the scandals, they effectively surrendered some of the princely autonomy they have traditionally exercised within their own dioceses: They adopted a binding policy on clergy sex abuse that obliges every diocesan bishop to remove from ministry any priest or deacon ever known to have sexually abused a minor.

"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the conference, declared moments after the 239-to-13 vote ratifying the new "Charter for Protection of Children and Young People. "

Gone are the days, the charter says, when bishops could move an abuser priest from parish to parish to avoid scandal. Gone, too, are the days when an abuser could be tucked away as a chaplain at a hospital or prison or convent, or in a chancery office.

Under the charter, any priest or deacon known to have ever had inappropriate sexual contact with a child will no longer be permitted to wear clerical garb, say Mass in public, or present himself to the public as a cleric.

Future offenders also face prompt laicization, a canonical process that removes them entirely from the clergy.

Past offenders will not automatically face laicization, however – a decision that rankled some victims' groups.

The bishops also created national and local review panels. Such actions – setting a mandatory policy for bishops, establishing lay oversight – fly in the face of Catholic church tradition.

"I have never seen the Catholic bishops acting so independently of the Vatican," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

Just as remarkable as the outcome of the meeting was the comeuppance the bishops encountered within it.

Thursday, an invited scholar stood at the podium and scolded them for their "arrogance," for operating a culture of aloofness, and for allowing little real church power to laity or women.

Even their own president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, was merciless.

"We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal . . . and we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries," he said, exhorting those who had ever abused a child to report his crime to civil authorities.

Later they sat in silence as four victims of clergy sex abuse delivered testimonies of their lifelong suffering – and of feeling abandoned, even scorned, by their bishops when they sought help.

"You can choose to defend, deny, retrench and rigidify," psychotherapist Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea told them afterward, and urged them to "turn away from arrogance and indifference and lead the American church on a path of recovery, growth and restored faith. "

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who prepared the agenda for the conference, said yesterday he was not sure how it would ripple across the culture of the Catholic Church in America.

"I was trying to do a lot here," he said, and felt it was necessary to expose his fellow bishops to "the pain of the victims" and "the sentiments of the American laity. "

The sex-abuse crisis, while a "painful experience," has presented the bishops with "an opportunity to be the shepherds we're supposed to be," Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said yesterday before leaving Dallas .

Cardinal Bevilacqua , who will deliver the homily this morning at St. Denis Church in Havertown, said he intended to create a panel including lay people to address how his archdiocese would implement the new charter on sex abuse "as well as the larger problems" facing the church.

"The faithful have anxiety about their children," he said, "and the credibility of the church . . . its moral authority . . . has been damaged. " He predicted it could take years to restore them.

The cardinal, who turns 79 tomorrow, said the bishops had talked for years about "the proper role" of the laity and how to expand their involvement, "but it's hard to find laity who have the time and energy. "

Bishop Michael Pfeiffer of San Angelo, Texas, said he thought the review boards would "force us to a greater openness" and that the self-scrutiny they received here might encourage dialogue between laity and prelates on a broad range of subjects, "such as homosexuality, and our whole understanding of human sexuality. "

But the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priest Councils in Chicago, said he thought changing the culture would take time.

"There are two world views at work in the church today," he said. "One is the old top-down model, where the bishop says, 'I am on top,' and the other is the culture of participation, which is the American style. And I think we're caught between the two. But I think the events of the last few months, and of this meeting this week, really challenge us in the church to ask, 'Who are we? ' "