ROME – “Zero tolerance” for sexual abuse has become one of those notoriously elastic phrases, such as “change,” “hope” and “progress,” which everyone claims to be for but no one seems to define in exactly the same way.

In American Catholic parlance, however, the term “zero tolerance” does have a fairly precise meaning, derived from the US bishops’ 2002 Dallas charter and norms: Permanent removal from ministry, and, in most cases, laicization, for even one justified allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

In that sense, “zero tolerance” remains a contested point. To this day, a central plank in the indictment of many abuse survivors and their advocates is that the Vatican has not imposed a universal “zero tolerance” policy everywhere in the world, which is often taken as a sign of reluctance to reform.

In part, such perceptions are rooted in memory. When the abuse scandals broke out in the United States in 2002, several Vatican officials initially dismissed them as a uniquely “American problem” and described the “zero tolerance” policy as a legalistic and Puritanical American overreaction.

That knee-jerk response was entirely about deflection and denial, and so the association between opposition to zero tolerance and “not getting it” was forged.

In the almost two decades since, however, it’s become clear there are also grounds for ambivalence about “zero tolerance” policies which aren’t just rooted in defensiveness, protecting the clerical club or insensitivity to victims. Like everything else, debates over the next steps in Pope Francis’s reform efforts were temporarily put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, but the questions remain and it’s far from obvious what may happen next.

The point comes to mind in light of a recent essay by Sister Anna Deodato, a member of the Diocesan Auxiliary Sisters of Milan, titled “There’s No Statute of Limitations for Pain: A Church Capable of Listening” and published in the Journal of Italian Clergy. She’s a veteran reformer on abuse, a member of a commission advising the Italian bishops on the issue and the author of a book last year on the sexual abuse of nuns that carried a preface by Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, perhaps Catholicism’s leading anti-abuse expert.

In the midst of an essay that amounted to a long plea for taking seriously the hurt experienced by victims, Deodato offered the following aside:

“We shouldn’t fail to offer a word about the commitment not to abandon those who have committed this crime,” she wrote. “We have to work to ensure they’re accompanied in the journey of becoming more responsible, their request for forgiveness and reconciliation, and their psychological care and spiritual support.”

“This, too, we must not forget, is a work of justice and peace,” Deodato wrote.

Deodato didn’t draw a straight line between that assertion and the American concept of “zero tolerance,” but it’s clear her emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation doesn’t necessarily sit well with a rigidly punitive approach.

Beyond such spiritual arguments, there are also a couple of longstanding practical objections to a “zero tolerance” approach.

One is illustrated by Father John Beal, a distinguished canon lawyer who teaches at the Catholic University of America. Ten years ago, Beal made a point at a seminar on Church law and the abuse crisis that remains a concern for some observers today: By automatically expelling offenders from the priesthood, the Church may serve the end of making itself look tough but it could also put other potential victims at risk by cutting the perpetrator loose without any further opportunity to exercise vigilance or influence.

Beal noted back in 2010 that’s a special danger when the odds of civil prosecution of the offender are low.

“Those prone to compulsive or addictive behavior are most likely to ‘act out’ when they are under stress, lonely, and cut off from a social support network — precisely the situation in which dismissed clerics are likely to find themselves,” Beal said.

Even in a purely secular context, there are also concerns that a rigid “zero tolerance” policy can be counterproductive.

Rob Enderle, for example, is a leading technology analyst and a former consultant for Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Siemens and Intel. Speaking largely about the culture of Silicon Valley, Enderle wrote a column in 2017 titled, “Why zero-tolerance policies never stop abuse,” which included the bald assertion that “zero-tolerance policies don’t help because they are just stupid.”

Enderle offered the example of a major tech company where a high-performing manager began dating someone in his chain of command despite a rigid corporate anti-fraternization policy. Trying to do the right thing, the manager attempted to arrange a transfer for the woman to a different department, explaining the reason for the request to the company’s HR manager.

As a result, both were fired. (In a footnote, the couple, who later married, won a massive settlement from a civil suit when they pointed out that the company’s married CEO had once carried on a notorious affair with an employee and was never sanctioned.)

The take-away for everyone in the company, Enderle wrote, was that there are no incentives for dealing openly and honestly with such situations, so the better course is to lie and cover-up.

A consensual adult relationship is miles away from the sexual abuse of a minor, but the same point applies: In a context in which the only possible outcome for a priest who reports himself in order to seek help is expulsion from the priesthood, it stands to reason fewer priests might come forward.

None of this, of course, necessarily means the American understanding of “zero tolerance” isn’t entirely justified. It’s rooted in the conviction that, as St. John Paul II put it, “There’s no room in the priesthood for those who abuse children.”

Moreover, experience has shown that no matter what else the Church may say or do, survivors generally won’t believe it’s taken their suffering seriously as long as their abuser remains a priest.

Nonetheless, the recent Deodato essay is a reminder that decades into the arc of the crisis, even those most horrified by clerical sexual abuse remain divided about what the “zero” in “zero tolerance” should mean – which, among other things, may help explain why the Vatican hasn’t yet made the American approach global.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.