As cardinals begin to gather in Rome for the imminent Papal election, much is being written about what the next Pope will need to do to address the challenges faced by the Catholic church. While I understand that the papacy is not something one openly campaigns for, I would like to offer a bit of unsolicited advice--something that would prove a highly popular plank in any campaign platform and that would immediately elevate a candidate to front-runner status in many people's eyes: Priests who sexually abuse children (or, frankly, anyone) will be defrocked, excommunicated, and turned over to the police.
What astonishes me--and, I suspect, many others--is not so much the apparent per capita prevalence of sex offenders among the clergy, but the sheer unwillingness of church authorities to deal with the problem. I will not go so far as to say that the cover-up is worse than the crime; in this case, the crime is pretty much as bad as it gets. But the cover up--the apparent indifference--is kind of inexplicable.
Because here's the thing: My understanding of Catholic doctrine, admittedly imperfect, states that the Pope is infallible: He literally answers to no one--no earthly authority, at any rate. In that regard, he is more powerful than the most powerful corporate CEO, more powerful than any head of state (who can always be removed either by the electorate or by military overthrow). His word is law. For a Pope, therefore, to countenance in any way the depredations of his priests--his employees--is inexplicable.
The Catholic church, as mentioned above, faces many challenges: declining membership, archaic attitudes about women and homosexuals, competition from other faiths. But a clear, uncompromising, zero-tolerance statement from the highest of the holiest would be a big step in the right direction--and might even help with some of the other challenges as well.