From start to finish, there was something carnival-like about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which gathered in Dallas last week to draft a national policy regarding sexual abuse of youths by clerics. For one, members of the media outnumbered the 252 bishops and cardinals by 2-to-1, and the entire east block of Akard Street was partitioned off for anticipated protesters.

Since they couldn't get personal access to the bishops, 12 different reform groups held news conferences at the Adam's Mark Hotel to announce their propositions for a better church. But it was the Dallas Diocese itself, wracked by recent scandal involving an abusive priest, that would eventually provide the idea that stuck, offering a blueprint for making churches safer from those who would prey upon the vulnerable.

Catholics for a Free Choice demanded "zero tolerance" for priests who commit any act of sexual misconduct. Dignity USA, the nation's foremost organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics, wanted to convey the message that there is "absolutely no link between the sexual abuse of children and homosexuality," says President Mary Louise Cervone. The Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) called on the church to overhaul itself and instill a code of professional standards of conduct like those currently in place for teachers and doctors. The Young Feminist Network was on hand to ask the church to be friendlier to its women parishioners. "Young Catholic feminists need to be heard," says coordinator Joy Barnes. "The systemic injustices of homophobia are becoming more and more prevalent."

Basically, anyone who has a beef with the Catholic Church was present at the conference. Outside the Fairmont, Pastor Fred Phelps, notorious for his "GodHatesFags. com," dispatched his minions--including his daughter--to protest the church's practice of ordaining gay men. The Queer Liberation Front asked the church for the opposite: more gay priests. The two groups ended up protesting each other. There were protesters demanding the church cease conducting infant circumcisions, and one woman even held up a sign saying, "Thank God for September 11."

But this was all just icing on the cake. The conference, perhaps, deserved such a bizarre table setting simply for the irony of its presence here in Dallas, home of the largest sexual-abuse verdict against the church in the United States. In January 1998, the Diocese of Dallas was perilously close to filing for bankruptcy. A 1997 lawsuit involving 11 victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest was the first multiple-victim case to go to trial. The victims were awarded $119.6 million because of abuse they suffered at the hands of the Reverend Rudolph "Rudy" Kos. When the verdict was finally entered, the Dallas church owed the victims more than $180 million with accrued interest, and that amount was growing every month.

"There was a serious prospect that the diocese would have to declare bankruptcy," says Sylvia Demarest, who along with lawyer Windle Turley represented the victims and their families. "We were the guys in the white hats. We wouldn't be the guys in the white hats if we were responsible for shutting down the diocese--if, because of us, churches and schools shut down." As a result, they settled with the church for $31 million, so as not to bankrupt the diocese.

Diocese Chief Financial Officer Michael Weis says the church paid several thousand of that out of cash and borrowed $11.3 million. Insurance companies covered the rest. The church also sold off various properties to help retire the debt, which was paid off in December 2000.

As the bishops spent hours arguing over the various proposed amendments to the charter, the level head of the bunch was Dallas Bishop Coadjutor Joseph Galante. At one point during the conference, he addressed his fellow bishops as though they were schoolchildren themselves. "It's very clear what the problem is, and it's very clear what the solution is," he said. "People want a clear policy that says, 'Your children will be safe.' Now that's why we're here."

It was from similar smoldering ashes that the Diocese of Dallas created the now famous "safe environment" program designed to protect children and the vulnerable. Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann made a fierce push to revamp the diocese, and he did so by implementing safe environment, a three-pronged effort at reform.

First, Mary Edlund, a laywoman, was appointed chancellor, a position historically occupied by a priest. "Only Bishop Grahmann has the power to make changes, but he's relied on his advisory board extensively," she says. "He felt very strongly that a board made up of his constituents would keep him in touch with the community." Second, four major diocesan boards were formed: personnel, pastoral concerns, ordination/ accreditation and conduct review. Lastly, a third party, Praesidium Inc., was brought in to audit Dallas churches and make sure everyone is in compliance with the program.

If a parishioner calls in a complaint about a priest, or if allegations are made about any kind of misconduct, sexual or otherwise, Edlund is the first person he or she talks to. "They feel comfortable talking to a layperson and to a laywoman," she says. Most recently, Bishop Grahmann called a meeting of his lay advisory board to discuss infractions of the diocese's safe environment program by the Reverend Stephan Bierschenk of St. Thomas Aquinas in Dallas and the Reverend Efren Ortega of St. James in Oak Cliff. The two priests were not accused of abuse themselves, but for simply failing to live up to the strict new policy.

The meeting resulted in the two priests being transferred for not conducting background checks of everybody working in their respective churches. In transferring Bierschenk and Ortega, the diocese set a national precedent and demonstrated that it is serious about the safety of its parishioners. "One of the key elements of the safe environment program is a background check on all employees and all volunteers that deal with children and the vulnerable," Galante says. "Father Ortega and Father Bierschenk did not do the checks."

Edlund was instrumental in this decision. "What the bishops heard from me was my outrage," she says. "I was outraged that pastors could have left implementations of safe environment so unattended, particularly in the climate of our times. Discussions around such issues are always collaborative. They usually involve the two bishops and me and sometimes the personnel board. In the cases of fathers Bierschenk and Ortega--involving the removal of a pastor or the suspension of a priest--I favored strong disciplinary action.

"I believe that some of these policies around safe environment are non-negotiable, so I take a tough stand. I felt the decision to remove [Bierschenk] was justified, although when the pastor met with me and the bishops, I think he was a bit surprised by the position I took."

And this, in essence, is what dioceses across the country can expect when they draft their own safe environment programs. The Dallas policy, which is touted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a model, will more than likely be the skeletal frame by which other Catholic communities fashion their programs.

Article 12 of the charter approved by the bishops says: "Diocese will establish 'safe environment' programs. They will cooperate with parents, civil authorities, educators and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youths, parents, ministers, educators and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children."

No matter how great safe environment looks on paper, there is no such thing as a faultless program. The children may be better protected, but some priests who were otherwise upstanding will get swept up in this whirlwind.