As awful as the news of priests forcing sex on altar boys is, to many of the faithful who sit in a pew each Sunday, the reaction of Roman Catholic Church leaders is even more shocking. After all, individual instances of sexual depravity are not unfamiliar to the church. "All around me resounded the cauldron of dissolute loves," said St. Augustine, who fathered a child with his mistress before converting.
But to learn now that bishops and cardinals - the embodiment of moral authority - covered up repeated cases of sexual abuse and reassigned predatory priests to other parishes with other children seems inconceivable.
Theologians, moral philosophers and experts in religion agree that there is no way to stretch Christian ethics to cover the church's response. "It's morally irresponsible by any standard," Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a Catholic theologian at Harvard Divinity School, said.
They have, therefore, turned to things like the social trends of the 60's and the corporate culture of the present to try to explain the inexplicable.
To many, it was not so much queasiness about sex, but confusion over whether to treat pedophilia as a curable disease or an intractable degeneracy that contributed to the church's decisions.
After Vatican II in the early 60's, American bishops tried to become more attuned to contemporary culture, Terese Lysaught, a professor of theology and ethics at the University of Dayton, said. Rather than viewing sex and pedophilia in the narrow framework of sin, the church "adopted a model of psychological illness along the model of alcoholism," Ms. Lysaught said. "The bishops were reassured by sexual counselors that these disorders were treatable."
"You don't blame people for having a disease, and you don't out them," she said. "You work them back into the community."
Society's thinking about pedophilia changed again in the 80's, Ms. Lysaught said, and abusers came to be seen as incorrigible criminal predators. But the rehabilitative model had already set the template for how the church dealt with pedophilia. At the same time, the tradition of hushing up the transgressions of those with status or power - whether a priest or a president - was being chipped away.
Bill Cavanaugh, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, said that the church had overdosed on therapy and that the model of sin and grace was out of fashion in seminaries these days. Instead of kicking out priests for "radical sinfulness," Mr. Cavanaugh said, church leaders believed they could "give somebody six months of therapy and then send them back out to work."
That the therapeutic approach would hold particular appeal for the Catholic Church is, in some ways, not difficult to understand. The belief in the transforming power of God's grace is at the heart of Christian teaching. The notion that someone is irredeemable is alien.
"In terms of traditional Christian morality, it is rather perplexing to think that a person would be incurable," the Rev. Michael Baxter, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said. "I really do think that people thought that with great moral resolve one could cease to do this."
Father Baxter, like other theologians, is at pains to point out he is only explaining, not excusing.
As the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the president of the Institute on Religion and Life, wrote in the monthly journal First Things: "Belief in the gift of the grace, however, is perfectly consistent with knowing that the gift is not always effectively received. When a priest repents after being caught dipping in the collections plate, there is forgiveness. There is even forgiveness, if he is repentant, after he has done it several times, but there are also secure measures for denying him access to the collection plate."
To others, the church's decisions to reassign problem priests and pay for the silence of their accusers is part of broader corruption.
"The American church is not immune from American culture," Cathleen Kaveny, a lawyer and theologian at Notre Dame, said. "You see it in Enron and across the board. What is the moral responsibility of an institution? The Catholic Church is dealing with that, just like every other institution."
Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and the author of "Unhealed Wound: The Church and Sexuality," said the bishops and cardinals acted more like corporate executives than church leaders, covering up a scandal, threatening those who wanted to speak out, surrounding themselves with lawyers and public relations gurus expert in polishing images and obscuring embarrassing truths.
Of course, cover-ups are not restricted to those who stand to gain a few million here and there. The police have their blue wall of silence; doctors whisper about incompetent surgeons - not only to protect their colleagues but to protect their profession. Organizational theorists have often observed how people within institutions, whether out of self-deception or cynicism, swallow misdeeds so as not to taint the organization.
If anything, some contend, the church is even more susceptible to such thinking. "The temptation of all churches is to see the church as more important than its message, and anytime you have that, corruption can occur," Paul Wadell, an associate professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis., said. "There is a tendency to want to protect the institution at all cost; people become expendable."
Add to that, a particularly acute fear of scandal in the church. "The only possible but tragically wrong thing you could say is that they were trying to protect the faithful against scandal," against the notion that priests were flawed creatures, Ms. Kaveny said.
While fear of scandal would inevitably lead to secrecy, Catholicism has an especially intimate relationship with confidentiality beyond such self-interest. Since the 11th century, when public penance fully gave way to private confession, confidentiality has had a central role in church practice. Mr. Cavanaugh sees secrecy as a systemic problem in the church, but one that has a double edge. Alongside the desire to protect the institution, he said, there is also a heartfelt reluctance to "make a public example out of somebody's sinfulness."
In the end, though, there is mostly bewilderment at decisions that put scores of children in the hands of known abusers. Yes, compassion suffuses the New Testament. But any attempt to justify the treatment of abusive priests in those terms is "false compassion," Father Neuhaus said. It is misguided to think it is compassionate to not force a person "to face up to the wickedness of what he has done and make sure he won't do it again." Yes, repentance and forgiveness are cornerstones of Christian teachings, but "there's no such thing as cheap grace," Mr. Schussler Fiorenza said. "You're not going to be forgiven unless you take concrete steps to avoid repeating the sin."
"I wonder what the hell was going through the cardinal's brain," Mr. Schussler Fiorenza said of Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who, along with other church officials, shuffled the now-defrocked priest John J. Geoghan from parish to parish while he abused as many as 130 children. "It's wacko."