A handful of bishops were still having a hard time coming to grips with the new reality. During one discussion, Bishop Michael Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., asked if there were any provisions in the new plan that would allow a bishop to reinstate a priest "after a demonstration of true conversion." Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn also wondered if the norms left any "sliver of hope for a priest who's confessed his delinquency."
No, said Cardinal George. A bishop "no longer has the discretion or authority to make that decision on his own" and must report the offense to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Even allowing for repentance and God's forgiveness, Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., said that "no one has the right to be a public minister. We are called to it" and that those who abuse children "have forfeited the call to ministry."
Gettelfinger pressed on, saying that a priest in his diocese had publicly confessed his action to his parish, where there was "enormous support and acceptance that he could continue as pastor." He added that Jesus not only forgave Peter, but he also made him "a leader of the church."
Maybe so, but "we're the church that talks about purgatory," said Galante. Even repentant sinners must make amends and suffer penalties, he said. "Yes, the priest is forgiven, but he's disrupted the moral balance, and his penance may be that he cannot serve as a priest again."
Then Sullivan moved the discussion further into the tricky territory of forgiveness. He wondered if there was a way to bring victims and abusers together in a reconciliation process, saying "victims will never have peace until they too can forgive."
Cardinal George wouldn't have it. Bishops "are not in a position to demand that victims forgive...[or] to say that since the priest has been forgiven, there will be no consequences."
Outside the meeting, a spokeswoman for the liberal Catholic activist group Call to Action agreed. "No one has a problem with reconciliation. As Christians, it's what we're called to do," said Claire Noonan. But there are some behaviors that are "so egregious" that a man can no longer act as a priest, she said. "They can be reconciled to the community in other ways."
For Mary Grant of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), forgiveness is beside the point: "I don't think I have to forgive the perpetrator to heal--my energy can be better used in protecting children."
Michael Ross, also of SNAP, feels that justice outweighs other considerations: "Without justice it's hard to understand that [abusers are] truly sorry." He says that his abuser also molested 21 other people, and that the ripple effect of abuse goes far beyond what would be covered by individual repentance or a single request for forgiveness.
"In order for me to even consider forgiving, [the priest would] have to ask forgiveness not only of those 21 people, but also of their families. Of the dog that was kicked because the kid was just abused and he didn't know why," Ross said.
And anyway, the protection of children always trumps the forgiveness of adults, said SNAP's national leader, David Clohessy. Responding to Gettelfinger's reference to Jesus forgiving Peter, Clohessy said, "Peter never molested a child."
This story first appeared on beliefnet.com.