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The joyous season of Easter is anything but celebratory for the Roman Catholic Church this year. Not since the great schisms in Europe, has the image of the Church taken such a pounding. The sexual abuse committed by a number of priests has deeply affected most Catholics, but far more importantly it has dashed much of the moral authority the Church may have possessed.

For centuries, Catholicism has defined good and evil in stark terms. The Church teaches that mortal sins, many of them in the sexual arena, will lead to eternal damnation if not confronted and confessed. Judgments about human behavior are front and center in Catholicism and priests have the power to forgive or to withhold forgiveness.

Now all that has been seriously undermined by the Church leadership, which did not aggressively stop the most heinous of sins: the abuse of children. Many good people are questioning how these men can ever again speak on moral issues.

The damage to the world in this case is incalculable. We live in a time of moral relativism where many human beings simply will not make judgments about right and wrong. President Clinton was a poster-boy for this group. All behavior can be explained and most excused. Evil is a word not a force. As Rosie O’Donnell told me: “Most problems lie in gray areas and it is there where the truth lies.”

But the Catholic Church does not see it that way. There is black and white in the teachings of Jesus. Taking a human life is wrong, therefore capital punishment and abortion are not acceptable. Using people for personal satisfaction is wrong, therefore casual sex and bodily abuse are sins.

Many people, perhaps most, do not believe what the Church proclaims. But the fact that there was a force in the world that would present an argument for absolute behavior was very important. The relativists of the world often will not demand responsibility for personal behavior that injures other people. The Church does demand that. And the world needs to hear that point of view or it will be engulfed in a secularism that can severely weaken even the strongest societies. Hello, ancient Rome.

But now the Catholic posture is badly wounded. Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But another resurrection is needed – that of the moral authority of the Catholic Church.

It cannot happen under the present leadership. Pope John Paul II is 82 years old and in poor health. Even in his robust years he ruled with an autocratic style. Dissent was not encouraged, and embarrassing the Church was a cardinal sin. That is why some cardinals covered up the sins of their priests. They did not want bad news delivered to Rome with their name attached.

That kind of selfishness and callousness has rocked many in the Catholic laity. There is little support for the Cardinals Law of Boston and Egan of New York. Most Catholics, I believe, would like to see those men reassigned. Perhaps they could be transferred to Rome to study proactive moral leadership.

But that will not happen anytime soon. The powerful protect each other and I don’t believe the pope will admit any mistakes on the part of the cardinals. The result will be a continuing erosion of confidence in the Church by its members, and continuing attacks on it by its detractors.

The situation this Easter time is far more serious than many think. The teachings of Jesus are clear. No person is to be violated – least of all children. And no violators are to be forgiven without penance.

When will the church leadership do that penance? Nobody knows. But until then, the rock the Catholic Church was built on, is beginning to roll downhill.

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