THE OPENING of the movie "Doubt" this week, which stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, will probably turn many people's attention to the child sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church since 2002. The film examines the case of a charismatic priest suspected of an improper relationship with a young boy.
The movie's plot is largely fictional. Sadly, too many stories that surfaced since 2002 were not fictional. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, something that caused the downfall of one of the most powerful bishops in this country, Bernard Cardinal Law; moved hundreds of abuse victims to step forward; and resulted in the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements by various dioceses, prompted apologies from the highest levels in the church, and led to an extraordinary meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and abuse victims from Boston just last April.
Yet there is something we hope is clear: the intention of the nation's bishops to address this problem forcefully. From as early as the US Bishops Conference meeting in Dallas in the summer of 2002, the Catholic bishops in this country have made it clear that, as Pope John Paul II wrote, "People need to know that there is no room in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."
These intentions have been translated into strong actions by the bishops. For example, any priest or member of a religious order against whom a credible accusation has ever been made is no longer working with children; many have been removed from the priesthood. This was the first way to redress some of the terrible mistakes of the past, and to try to ensure that those who abused children will not do so again.
The Catholic Church has also set up aggressive safe-environment programs. From 2003 to 2007, when the most recent audits of the church's safe-environment efforts were completed, the Catholic Church in the United States has trained more than 1.8 million clergy, church employees, and parish volunteers in how to create safe environments and prevent any future child abuse; prepared more than 5.8 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves; and run criminal record checks on more than 1.5 million volunteers and employees, 162,700 educators, 51,000 clerics, and 4,955 candidates for ordination.
As the head of the National Review Board, a board of lay persons that oversees implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, I can confidently state that the US bishops are committed to these programs.
Still, many Catholics and others expect more. Their anger, disappointment, and frustration are not surprising given the gravity of the crimes, and the admittedly sorry record of some bishops who moved priests from parish to parish even, tragically, in the face of evidence of abuse. Many Catholics wonder why more bishops haven't resigned as a sign of contrition and, indeed, penance. Priests, they say, have been removed.
I, on the other hand, believe it is better for bishops to take responsibility for fixing the problem. This may not satisfy everyone.
The movie "Doubt" raises, as did the play on which it is based, a number of important questions about sexual abuse. For example, how can one discern the right course of action when, despite little evidence, one is worried about a child and suspects abuse? (These are questions we cover in our training sessions.) And many of the questions move beyond the issues of sexual abuse: For example, what is the role of doubt in the life of the believer? Can absolute moral certainty blind us to new information, or even compassion for those we have already judged?
But one thing I hope that viewers might know. The Catholic Church is unrelenting in its quest to ensure that all children - indeed, all persons - in its care are safe, and reverenced as children of God. Of this there is no doubt.
Michael Merz, a federal judge in Dayton, Ohio, is chairman of the National Review Board.