By David Clohessy

Ten years ago this summer, America's Catholic bishops pledged to aggressively investigate allegations of sexual predation by clerics, to show "zero tolerance" for abuse, and to be transparent about the problem. Since then, however, church officials have consistently lined up to protect themselves and their clergy in case after case.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops recently cited a Pew survey that showed seven of 10 Catholics are "satisfied" with the prelates' performance, up from 51 percent a decade ago. The bishops' 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" has proven to be mostly a public-relations campaign, and the Pew numbers suggest it has worked to an extent. But most of what the church hierarchy has actually done over the past decade amounts to mere motion, not progress.

For example, church officials have required that thousands of teachers, janitors, clerks, and organists around the country undergo background checks and training to recognize signs of abuse upon being hired by Catholic institutions - though few accusations of abuse have involved organists or janitors. The church also set up review panels, advisory boards, and "auditors" to oversee parish programs and policies, but they are toothless entities staffed and controlled by the bishops.

At best, these policies do no harm. Perhaps a background check has kept a child molester or two from being hired to teach or clean floors at a Catholic school. And because of all the expensive training, thousands of lay Catholics no doubt know more about abuse. However, when the church leadership learns of an allegation of abuse, it still prefers to conduct its own investigation and, more often than not, attempt to discredit the victim. And when it became clear that 37 priests accused of sexual misbehavior were still at their parish jobs in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, it was clear that the archdiocese's review board had no idea about many of them.

California model

Rather, all the progress achieved in investigating abuse and punishing abusers has been in the courts. According to a recent article in the Economist, cases of molestation and rape of children by priests have led to more than $3.3 billion in civil settlements over the past 15 years.

Of that, $1.3 billion was awarded in California. In 2002, the year the bishops issued the Charter for the Protection of Children, the California Legislature created a one-year "window" during which the statute of limitations on abuse was suspended, leading to hundreds of lawsuits, and hundreds of church predators exposed, suspended, removed, or jailed.

Who knows how many thousands more would be brought to justice if Pennsylvania and every other state did what California did? But the church hierarchy spends large sums each year lobbying state legislatures to keep statutes of limitations.

Even with these legal walls to hide behind, many priests have been found liable or guilty. Still, Philadelphia Msgr. William Lynn is the only ranking church official sent to prison for a cover-up in more than 20 years of church abuse investigations.

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, some thought the bishops might get a message from Rome: Clean up your mess. Ratzinger, after all, had headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees abuse investigations and policy. While he has talked about the problem and apologized for it since becoming pope, however, little has been done on a practical level. Monarchs change, but monarchies do not.

Political courage

Meanwhile, the abuse and cover-ups continue, from Loudoun County, Va., to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, from eastern Tennessee to Fairbanks, Alaska. Based on evidence from the case against Lynn, Montgomery County prosecutors are investigating West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a Philadelphia native who has been accused of letting a predator priest use his Shore house. (Bransfield has denied doing anything wrong.) A bishop in Kansas City, Robert Finn, is scheduled to stand trial this month on charges that he protected a priest who took pornographic photos of children.

What we learn over and over - most recently from the Penn State travesty - is that most institutions are not inclined to deal openly and honestly with child abuse. Like university administrators, church officials won't discipline or expel their colleagues and underlings until they are forced to do so.

The only good news has been the persistence of secular law enforcement. Prosecutors are doing what they can to hold church officials accountable. And Congress and the state legislatures could make it easier for them to protect kids and expose predators by eliminating the time limits on lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

Prosecutors and judges have mustered the political courage to do what the church has been unwilling to do: isolate and punish priests who commit or conceal dreadful crimes against children. When it comes to these behaviors, no institution - and certainly not the U.S. bishops - can be trusted to police itself.