THE U.S. BISHOPS meeting that begins in Washington tomorrow will thrash out the details of a compromise between a delegation of U.S. bishops and the Vatican on the Roman Catholic Church's policy regarding sexual abuse of children by priests. Early indications are that the Rome meeting softened some of the tough rules adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops four months ago in Dallas. If there has been a significant retreat from the zero-tolerance policy overwhelmingly approved in Dallas, the strain in the bond of trust between Catholic clergy and laity may continue, to the church's detriment. There is one area, however, in which there can be no backtracking, at least where the church and the larger society are concerned: Preying upon children is more than a sin, and is a legitimate concern of the Vatican and U.S. Catholic hierarchy; it is a crime in America for which there is no religious shield and in which civil authority must have primacy.

That point bears emphasis because the Rome parley seemed to be more concerned with the application of canon law to the Dallas policy. Specifically, it has been reported that Vatican officials believed the bishops' policy ran afoul of a church requirement that sexual abuse allegations against priests be brought within 10 years of the victim's 18th birthday. The policy approved in Dallas had no statute of limitations on the removal of abusive priests, even for a single transgression decades earlier. Reportedly the Vatican also objected to the bishops' broader definition of sexual abuse, and the lack of sufficient due process protections for accused priests as required under canon law. The Rome compromise, according to one participant, supplants proposed lay boards with church tribunals that will have authority to convict accused priests. Now we learn that the new revisions eliminate the requirement that all sexual abuse allegations be reported to civil authorities. The latest version requires only that bishops "comply with all applicable laws" regarding the reporting of sexual abuse allegations. Thus, in states where sexual abuse of minors is an offense but reporting is not required by law, bishops may feel free to keep such offenses from the authorities. That does appear to be a significant backtracking from Dallas. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, leader of the U.S. delegation to Rome, said he believed that "the goals of the Dallas decision, i.e., to protect minors and to reach out to victims, have been preserved," and that as a result of the negotiations, the new policy respects the rights of accused priests. The meetings this week will give the bishops an opportunity to agree or disagree with Cardinal George's assessment.

How the Catholic Church handles abusive clergy is an issue for priests, their church superiors and women and men who share that faith. The unlawful preying upon minors, however, is a serious felony regardless of who the abuser may be, and that is the business of the criminal justice system. Sexual molestation or sexual exploitation of a minor must be beyond the protective shield of any institution -- be it educational, corporate or religious. Any policy that allows clergy sexual abuse of children to go unreported to public authorities is a policy that grievously harms more than it helps.