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I am writing this two days before the U.S. bishops are scheduled to be in Dallas to confront the ugliest problem the church has faced in the modern era. I don’t know what will come of it. I have been contacted by press outlets large and small. Everyone is nervously making arrangements for interviews, so intent on finding the next and newest angle that all sides of this issue have been rubbed smooth. It is difficult to get a purchase on this story.

So much of it is so apparent -- abuse, cover-up, wounded people, anger and rage, disappointment, big money, eager prosecutors and civil attorneys.

I have handed out my cell phone, land phone and fax numbers and my e-mail address to more people than I can count. Yes, I’ll be in Dallas, I tell them, confident that I will have yet one more “take” on this story. After 15 years of covering and reading about this story, who wouldn’t have something to say on command?

But what I know won’t fit easily into sound bites and the reporting from the meeting in Dallas is what actually makes this story so compelling and so sad.

Something, we all know, has irrevocably shifted. Something deep has been forced out of its usual fittings, and no one will be able to put it back in place for a long, long time. To understand that deep displacement, however, to get at the real ache and misery of this crisis requires the language and wisdom of the faith community, and the bishops have placed themselves apart from that community.

The healing balm so needed can be drawn only from the deep wells of the sacred, but the bishops have left themselves only the brittle splints of the law and an argument over how severely to apply the law. They have cut themselves off from the language and the community that can bring healing.

What begs for deep moans of remorse and the demeanor of penitents is stage managed instead with spin doctors, news releases and cautious negotiations. I find it astonishing that the bishops could issue a draft document that contained not one line suggesting sanctions for bishops who have protected notorious abusers, ignored and even vilified victims and raided the community treasury to buy silence. What possible authority can they bring to solving the problem? They go to Dallas to solve a problem about which they have yet to ask the fundamental questions: How could such widespread abuse happen? How could the leaders of a community of faith and compassion turn deaf ears to the cries of the most vulnerable?

The community awaits a Jesus-like act, the gesture of a wild holy one. It is tired, weary really, of bishops who seem trained more for the corporate boardroom than the clamor and press of needy crowds.

The gospel for the Sunday after the meeting begins, “At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”

No one knows what will happen as of this writing. Perhaps one of the bishops, unheard until now, will allow the wail of true contrition to issue from deep within him. Maybe one will dare to jeopardize a career to speak deep from his heart. How lavishly that man would be loved.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002