06/11/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

The Church Should Take Responsibility for Its Pedophiles

My hometown, Philadelphia, became known over the past decade for its criminally accused and criminally liable priests, 37 of them. One of them, Monsignor William Lynn, the first member of the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy to suffer a conviction in the scandal, is serving a serious prison term not for rape but for helping to bury the pedophilia scandal by shredding internal Church documents. Copies were subsequently found (by, my guess, some heroic female office lay worker in the Archdiocese).

The Archdiocese is also now known for the fact that, in Philadelphia, the Church has not lived up to its no-tolerance pledge. Like many mammoth institutions, the Church has found advancing molesters onward and, at times, upward, far simpler than confrontation. In some cases, the Church simply removed these men from the priesthood.

I am not in favor of the Church simply ridding itself of these priests. If that's zero tolerance, it's flawed. The Church should be held accountable to its faithful and to the rest of us -- including those who have taught distraught teens after their horrified parents have pulled them from diocesan schools -- by taking full responsibility for these men. The Church recruited, groomed, educated, trained and ordained them and provided them, worldwide and for generations, extraordinary access to tens of millions of children.

Cashiering these men would force secular society to wholly assume a responsibility that is not wholly ours. There's no reason to think that pedophilic priests, defrocked and loosed onto the streets, would be less dangerous than they were, say, at Saint Paul's or Saint Bart's. In fact, defrocked and on the loose, they would be harder to identify within the thousands of communities their presence would make vulnerable.

Unless civil society is prepared swiftly to try, convict and imprison these men -- all of them and for decades -- the Church should not be permitted to foist pederasts, one after the next, on the rest of us. Zero tolerance should mean that the Church, in an oversight arrangement with secular criminal authority, pays for their upkeep and keeps them in positions and locations that never allow them to associate with anyone under 21. That's not as much of a stretch as it may seem. States attorneys have, in fact, considered using RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statutes to go after malignant dioceses.

While the Church has become a far-too-safe haven for the sexually and emotionally compromised, it has shown itself too many times to be unwilling, on its own, to keep these priests cloistered for the balance of their lives and thus unable to perpetrate further harm.

I hope that the new pope, Francis, has the fortitude to begin to turn this about.

Jonathan Wolfman is author of 'Passionate Justice: A Progressive Memoir in Essays.'