Bishop Wilton Gregory, 54, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November. The word Cardinal is all but stamped on his forehead. Though an early supporter of lay panels to address abuse cases, he is very much a conservative clergyman in the mold of Pope John Paul II, and this week he and his fellow bishops meet in Dallas to discuss how to handle the church's problems. He spoke last week with TIME Midwest bureau chief Marguerite Michaels:
Q. Has this scandal been shocking to you?
A. It's awful. I'm a priest and a bishop, and I wanted to be a priest from the time I was in the sixth grade. And my own experience of priests from the time I was a youngster has only been of the finest priests that I know. Yes, it's shocking.
Q. What about how it was handled?
A. It was just awful.
Q. These are men you know.
A. This is a group I also respect. It's so unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life in relationship to priests. If we don't get our act together, we'll compound an already awful situation of loss of trust and credibility.
Q. Does the new sexual-abuse-policy draft address your concerns? And even if it is accepted, how do you enforce it?
A. There's going to be a certain publicness about it. Before Dallas, some dioceses had a review board; some didn't. Some had a vehicle for reporting; some didn't. The bishops reported some cases to the civil authorities; some didn't. Now the process is going to be made mandatory and our policy publicized. If you are alleging this has happened to you, this is where you go in your diocese to do something about it.
Q. By canon law, you can't have a mandatory policy [on how to handle abuse cases] without the Vatican's support.
A. One of the reasons we went to talk to them in April was to test the waters. Did I come away believing that every Curial prefect and secretary that we spoke with understood American civil law? No. Did I come away believing that every Curial official that we met with had a much clearer appreciation of the severity of this crisis? Yes. Did I come away with the sense that the Pope and his officers were willing to assist us and support us in the pastoral initiatives that we would take? Yes. Did they give us a blank check? No ... The defining voice in Dallas for me is what John Paul II said to us in Rome: There is no place in the clergy or religious life for those who would harm children. That's the defining law.
Q. How important is this meeting in Dallas?
A. In my humble opinion, this is probably the most significant meeting that the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the U.S. has ever had. This is not the silver bullet. It's the first step in re-establishing a sense of credibility, trust and harmony between the bishops and the Catholic faithful.
Q. Why do you call this the worst crisis?