When it comes to alleviating the suffering of the poor, no organization on this earth has been more effective than the Roman Catholic Church. From the disease-ridden streets of Calcutta, India, to the chaos of Africa, to the child-selling villages of Thailand, Catholic clergy and lay volunteers have shown up and are doing good.

It is tragic, then, that the leaders of the Church in Rome are doing so much damage to what is essentially an institution that embraces peace and charity. The good works of thousands are being overshadowed by the pathetic words and deeds of a few.

It is widely known within the church that Pope John Paul II is so ill that he is almost entirely out of the decision-making process. Instead, there are a few powerful “little popes” who surround the pontiff and issue orders in his name.

And the orders right now to American bishops have come down to one thing: Stonewall.

The head of the Vatican Council, Archbishop Julian Herranz, recently delivered a speech castigating the American media, and insisting that bishops should not be required to turn over records on abusive priests to prosecutors.

This outrage was followed up by a Vatican approved article whereby Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda stated that a child molester priest should not have his “good name” ruined if he undergoes “treatment.” Ghirlanda went on to say that bishops should not tell anyone about the abusive priest’s past if he is “reassigned.”

Clear-thinking Americans should react in horror to those opinions because the Vatican is basically saying that civil authorities and parents have no right to know about a priest who assaulted children in the past.

This is indefensible and, possibly, criminal if acted upon.

The only solution to the problem of child molester priests is zero tolerance. If an incident is proved, the priest should be defrocked and prosecuted. The church should use lie-detector tests and have review boards comprised of lay people and clergymen to deal with accusations against priests.

There is a danger, of course, that some priests will be falsely accused. The Vatican is correct in saying that its clergy must have some due process before the cops are called. Zero tolerance is only effective if the presumption of innocence is respected.

But polygraph and review board hearings can quickly validate accusations of sexual impropriety. Then it’s time for the authorities – whether Rome likes it or not.

There is no question that the Catholic Church in America is in the midst of its worst crisis ever. According to a recent CBS poll, only 25 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the pope.

And it’s the pope’s own fault. Although sick now, he has consistently given power over the years to men who are autocratic and unyielding. These are hard men, not princes of the Church in the image of Jesus Christ. John Paul II tolerates no dissent and no reform. He has put the “image” of the Church before all else – including the welfare of children.

Well, now that image is in tatters. And the arrogant, defiant Rome Clique are determined to defend their reprehensible position no matter how much damage is done.

The “gates of hell” have indeed besieged the Catholic Church. Pray they do not prevail.

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