Much of the recent scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church's response to clergy sexual abuse has focused on whether the Vatican - and the man who is now pope - acted quickly enough to kick perpetrators out of the priesthood.
But church officials, experts in abuse prevention and even some victims' advocates question whether the time-consuming church process known as laicization, often called defrocking, is the right benchmark in abuse cases.
The question - to defrock or not? - is complicated by the fact that most abuse allegations date back decades and cannot be prosecuted criminally, leaving decisions about how to deal with abusers largely in the hands of church authorities.
Some Catholics say laicizing a perpetrator, which only the Vatican can do, is just and fair - an unambiguous verdict that validates victims and punishes child molesters with the clerical equivalent of the death penalty.
But laicizing a priest can take years, while a local bishop can swiftly yank perpetrators from working with children and continue to keep tabs on them. Because of that, others say the focus should be on holding church officials accountable for taking action short of that: permanently removing perpetrators from ministry and keeping them away from children.
One knock on laicization is that the church and former priest cut ties, meaning an abuser would be free of all church supervision.
"People get so mad at perpetrators - which is understandable - and the bishops," said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and former head of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which treats molester priests. "But they forget what the goal is. The goal is to protect minors."
Laicization is in the spotlight now because of recently publicized documents calling into question how a powerful Vatican office headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI handled abuse cases.
In two U.S. cases, the Congregation for the Doctrineof the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 to his papal election in 2005, either slowed down or resisted steps toward the laicization of two abuser priests.
One involved a Wisconsin priest, never laicized, accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys. The other concerned an Oakland, Calif., priest who sought to leave the priesthood after being convicted of child molestation - a request that eventually was granted. The Vatican has defended its response, citing the circumstances involved.
In the United States, the so-called zero tolerance policy adopted by bishops in 2002 bars priests with any credible abuse allegation from public ministry - meaning no clerical garb, celebrating Mass publicly or access to children.
Most abuser priests in the U.S. do not face the additional step of laicization, a dismissal from the clerical state that also typically lifts the celibacy obligation, said Rossetti, a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington. He puts the figure at 20 percent.
However, it's impossible to get a full picture because the Vatican does not release data on the number of priests laicized for child sexual abuse.
Anne Burke, an Illinois judge who served from 2002 to 2005 on the National Review Board, an advisory panel established by U.S. bishops to monitor their response to the scandal, supports laicizing perpetrators as a matter of justice.
"You don't find someone guilty of assault and then decide not to punish them," said Burke, who complained that some U.S. bishops obstructed the board's work. "You must finish the penance. You must finish the sentence."
The problem with only removing abuser priests from ministry, Burke said, is that church leaders have a spotty record of overseeing such priests.
Teresa Kettelkamp, a former Illinois police colonel and executive director of the U.S. bishops'Secretariat for Children and Young People, said to laicize or not is a tough call and dioceses are feeling their way through the issue.
But she warned against viewing laicization as a step to safeguard children and prevent future abuse.
"It seems a quick answer - 'We'll laicize him and kick him out of the church,'" Kettlekamp said. "Well, they're going to be in the neighborhoods. Then there'll be no controls whatsoever."
Men's religious orders generally view laicization as a last resort. The Jesuits, for example, place abuser priests in Jesuit communities away from schools and parishes, where they typically cannot leave without another priest, said the Rev. Thomas Gaunt, executive secretary of the Jesuit Conference, the order's U.S. office.
Only after a man rejects that arrangement is he dismissed from the order and is laicization sought.
Laicization can take years because of due-process rights for priests and other factors. The Vatican streamlined the process for sex offenders in 2001 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith became the central Vatican office handling all abuse cases.
Those cases generally involve bishops or superiors moving against a priest. But traditionally, most laicizations have been requested by men who want to leave the priesthood to marry or for other reasons. A mass exodus in the 1960s and 1970s caused Pope John Paul II to put the brakes on granting them, a position that eased up later in his papacy.
Numerous lawsuits have exposed failed church efforts to rehabilitate abuser priests.
In 1986, the Rev. Andrew Christian Andersen was convicted in Orange County, Calif., on 26 counts of felony molestation and sentenced to a New Mexico treatment center run by a religious order instead of prison.
He was arrested in New Mexico in 1990 on suspicion of trying to sodomize a 14-year-old boy and was ordered to serve six years in prison for violating his parole in the earlier case. He was laicized in the mid-1990s.
More recently, outside auditors faulted the Chicago archdiocese for its handling of the case of the Rev. Daniel McCormack, an algebra teacher and basketball coach at a parish school in a poor neighborhood.
The investigation found the archdiocese failed to properly investigate molestation allegations against McCormack, remove him from ministry after they became known or adequately monitor him. McCormack pleaded guilty in July 2007 to five felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was laicized in 2007.
Among victims' advocates, opinions on laicization as a form of justice vary.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org said laicization is a strong statement against the priest and a validation of victims, which is important because most cases are too old to go to civil or criminal court. But she said that too often, laicizations are carried out in secret and the public is kept in the dark.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the ideal punishment is jail or - short of that - placement in a remote, secure treatment center run independently of the church. If a predator is genuinely kept away from kids, Clohessy said, whether he is a priest or not "matters much less to us."