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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ire and Brimstone

Zero tolerance is a particularly American response to wrongdoing. There are no calls for zero tolerance in Europe, only astonishment at the ways in which Americans go about dealing with their demons. One can only wonder, therefore, what Pope John Paul II thought when he first heard American cardinals advocating a policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse on the part of priests.

In the current crisis involving those priests, the Vatican has gotten many things wrong. Not until recently did it understand the seriousness of the crisis, and it continues to believe that the problem is pedophilia, not cover-up. Vatican officials are too quick to blame the problem on a culture of permissiveness or the attractiveness of the Catholic priesthood to homosexuals. The gap between ordinary American Catholics and the Vatican, which opened up in 1968 when the pope issued an encyclical against birth control, will only widen as a result of the scandals that began in Boston.

But on one issue, the Vatican is correct: It rejected a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse in the priesthood. Had such a policy been adopted, it would have made it easier for cardinals and bishops who had ignored the problem of abusive priests for years, and who were complicit in transferring them to new assignments, to say that they had taken strong corrective measures. And many priests who never did anything wrong could have lost their ministries because of false charges against them.

The harm of a zero-tolerance policy in this context and in others is that it allows an institution to declare it has dealt with a problem. Faced with evidence of wrongdoing, Americans are quick to resort to seemingly easy, absolutist policies. If kids steal, if high school students cheat, if college students shout racial epithets -- the overwhelming desire is for an unambiguous response. Excuses will not be heard, exceptions will not be considered, forgiveness will not be available.

Crime should of course be punished, the most serious crimes the most severely. But zero tolerance is not about crime; it is a way to make ourselves feel that we have done the right thing while actually allowing wrong things to continue unimpeded. It is the lazy person's response to serious social problems.

Indeed, the notion of zero tolerance seems reserved for bad conduct that has long been accepted with a wink. When officials reach for zero tolerance, it is because they once tolerated what they now seek to forbid. The point most often is not to catch wrongdoers or offer solace to victims; it is to protect officials, psychologically or legally, from scrutiny of their past complicity. It is used as a quick way to end debate about truly meaningful solutions.

Officials tend to urge a policy of zero tolerance knowing full well that nothing much will happen as a result of their tough new stance. Some students will be expelled when zero-tolerance policies are adopted, just as some priests will be defrocked. But in nearly all cases, these will be sacrificial offenders, meant to set examples, because little proof need be offered of the harms their acts caused. Unrepentant wrongdoers will hide and continue their abuses as soon as the period of heightened public awareness ends, as it inevitably will.

Perhaps the Vatican rejected a policy of zero tolerance for the most principled of reasons. But considering the popularity of the idea in the United States, and the fact that among the worst offenders in this scandal are priests and their superiors, the leadership of the American church may choose another path.

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, indicated as much when he told reporters that he favors zero tolerance for all abusers, past and future, and that he expects the conference to endorse such a policy at its meeting in June.

Experience in other contexts has proved the folly of this approach. For the church to adopt it now would be yet another sign that it is not serious about meaningful reform.

Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, contributed this comment to The New York Times.