Even as some Roman Catholic Church leaders say the new policy proposed by U.S. bishops for dealing with sexual abuse by priests doesn't go far enough, others are complaining that the proposals conflict with the church's own law and religious teachings.
A wide spectrum of critics have weighed in, including Vatican officials, priests, experts in church law and even a liberal lay reform group. They say they fear that the stricter policy - which advocates zero tolerance for any act of abuse and would make it easier to defrock clergy - will turn bishops into prosecutors, trample on the rights of priests, ignore the church's mandate to reconcile with sinners or would be impossible to enforce.
"The problem is, the Code of Canon Law [that governs the Catholic church] protects priests," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, an advocate for clergy concerns. "That doesn't sit well with what some people in the street are saying about 'zero tolerance.'"
Even Pope John Paul II cautioned the American cardinals against going too far at April's Vatican summit, when he said, "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God."
The liberal Call To Action USA has also come out against zero tolerance, calling it unenforceable and arguing that only priests guilty of felonies should be defrocked. Those convicted of misdemeanors should be individually judged.
With rigid zero tolerance policies, "you end up with ridiculous situations like what happens in some of our schools, where a second-grader who brings a plastic knife to school to spread her peanut butter, in contravention of zero tolerance of weapons, gets expelled," said Claire Noonan, a group spokeswoman.
These critics probably won't divert the U.S. bishops from adopting a stricter sexual abuse policy next week in Dallas. In fact, many cardinals and bishops, including Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, want to make it even tougher, defrocking past and future offenders.
Vatican has last word
But the new policy must be approved by the Vatican before it can be made mandatory for every U.S. diocese. Recent comments from Rome, while not definitive, suggest zero tolerance might not be endorsed.
Priests and canon lawyers, the experts in the law that governs the church, are particularly concerned about proposals to make it easier for bishops to defrock accused priests, bypassing the cumbersome procedures of a church trial.
The vast majority of priests who are defrocked, or laicized, do so voluntarily, usually because they wish to marry. Only a handful of the most notorious cases, such as John Geoghan in Boston or Rudy Kos in Dallas, who have molested dozens of victims, have been forcibly removed from the priesthood.
Because the judicial process can take a year or longer, bishops rarely use it, choosing instead the expedient of placing them on leave and removing their priestly faculties, forbidding them to publicly celebrate Mass or other church sacraments.
That is why someone like the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell technically remains a priest and receives financial support from the Baltimore archdiocese, even though he was removed from ministry in 1998.
"My understanding of canon law is a bishop has some obligation to provide sustenance: food, shelter and medical care," said Monsignor Richard W. Woy, who coordinates the Baltimore archdiocese's response to sexual abuse allegations.
Some canon lawyers worry that short-cutting the process presents a possibility for injustice.
"Personally, if I were accused, I would want the judicial process and would insist on it," said the Rev. Arthur J. Espelage, executive secretary of the Washington-based Canon Law Society of America.
Pope John Paul has also expressed discomfort with bypassing the current procedure. During informal conversation at the cardinals' summit, he recalled how individual rights were violated when his native Poland was under Communist rule.
But Keeler said that Vatican officials were open to the concept of an expedited process for defrocking a priest accused of sexual abuse.
"However," he added, "I have the feeling that those who are responsible in this area would want to see the details of the proposal, how we dot the I's and cross the T's."
Keeler said that once the new procedure is approved by Rome, he will consider defrocking priests such as Blackwell who are currently on leave.
Several Vatican officials also have raised questions about the proposal to require church officials to report abuse to civil authorities and force priests into psychological evaluation.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the second-highest-ranking official in the Vatican's office on doctrine, argued against mandatory reporting of sexual abuse in an Italian Catholic magazine, saying that civil society must "respect the 'professional secrecy' of priests."
David Clohessy, national director for SNAP, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said it was "painful to hear that maybe some think these measures go too far, because in our view they don't go nearly far enough."
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America, said criticism from high-ranking Catholic officials "would indicate that the U.S. bishops are going to have to present some strong arguments to convince the Vatican of their position."
"On the other hand," he said, "there is nothing to stop any bishop from implementing whatever the bishops decide in Dallas in his own diocese."