WASHINGTON -- The president of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops opened the group's national meeting Monday by saying the "energy of the whole church" should be directed toward reaching out to victims of clergy sex abuse and rebuilding unity among Catholics divided by the crisis.
Bishop Wilton Gregory said that nothing has damaged the American church more than the scandal over predator priests and the bishops who failed to stop them. He said too many victims "have experienced that some of us did not act like good shepherds when they came to us" and the bishops have a responsibility to reconcile with them.
"If the scourge of sex abuse is to be effectively eliminated, then the energy of the whole church needs to be directed to this end," he said.
Gregory's remarks refocused the church hierarchy's attention on abuse at a four-day meeting where the topic -- though listed on the agenda -- is not the dominant subject it was at last year's gatherings.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed Gregory's remarks, but said he questioned whether bishops would follow through and work more closely with victims.
"There's only one way we'll know how to judge them and that is on their actions," said Clohessy, who helped organize a protest vigil outside the bishops' meeting.
To restore trust in their leadership, the bishops a year ago enacted a mandatory discipline plan for guilty priests, started victim assistance programs in dioceses and commissioned an unprecedented official study on the extent of abuse in the church over the last 50 years.
However, reform advocates have complained that several bishops continue to withhold information about predators that would help victims move forward. The lay reform group Voice of the Faithful also has criticized the bishops for failing to hold each other accountable for mishandling abuse cases.
Gregory, of Belleville, Ill., touched on that issue indirectly in his speech, saying his fellow prelates need to "reflect on our own need to accept just criticism," and realize that what they do in their own dioceses affects every church leader.
He also said bishops should find ways "to foster and to nurture successful participation and dialogue" with priests and lay people.
Voice of the Faithful, whose leaders are monitoring the bishops' meeting from a hotel across the street, have been pushing for a greater lay role in moving the church beyond the crisis. Ten bishops have banned the group from meeting on church property, its leaders said.
"Rather than being something that divides us, the sexual abuse crisis can and should become a rallying point not only to make the church a safe environment for all children, but our whole society as well," Gregory said.
Some victims in the Archdiocese of Boston, where the scandal erupted, were angered by comments Gregory made in an interview Sunday with The Boston Globe. The paper quoted Gregory saying the church has "turned the corner" on the sexual abuse crisis, but still needs to restore trust.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said that Gregory was simply reacting to recent polls showing that rank-and-file Catholics appear to be responding positively to the bishops' reforms.
"Bishop Gregory has made it very clear we're not going to walk away from this" issue, Walsh said.
The abuse issue sparked debate Monday as some bishops objected when Kathleen McChesney, head of the conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection, which was formed last year, asked for about $260,000 to hire additional staff -- one full-time and two part-time.
The prelates said they had been forced to cut spending in their own dioceses and the bishops' conference should do the same. Other bishops responded that the abuse issue was too important to argue over spending.
"This is the most serious pastoral crisis that has ever been faced in this country and not to give the director what she needs in my judgment would be a mistake of enormous pastoral proportions," said Bishop John D'Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.
McChesney's request was approved on a voice vote, bringing her office's annual budget to about $1 million.
The National Review Board, a lay panel the bishops formed to monitor their response to abuse, is scheduled to update the prelates on their progress on Tuesday.
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Bishops' conference: http://www.usccb.org/