NEW YORK -- For Roman Catholic dissidents who want women and married men in the priesthood, the sex abuse scandal now shaking the church is a golden opportunity bearing a "handle with care" label.
Though wary of seeming exploitive, liberal activists believe the crisis is creating ferment that makes their long-sought goals more plausible than ever -- even if conservatives still predict they'll fail.
"The pedophilia scandal is not anything we want to be seen as capitalizing on," said Erin Hanley of the Women's Ordination Conference. "But sometimes great joy and rebirth comes out of great suffering."
The ordination conference, like several other liberal Catholic groups, kept a low profile during the scandal's early stages. On Monday, however, the sex-abuse problem figured prominently in protests marking World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination.
"This is an opportunity to break the silence on a number of issues that people around the world have concerns with," Hanley said. "A lot of Catholics who've been upset with the church, but were fearful of speaking up, are finally saying, 'This isn't right.'"
Leaders of the group CORPUS, which advocates a more inclusive priesthood, said their reaction to the scandal was cautious yet determined.
"Just as you wouldn't want to injure a wounded animal, there's a concern about using this as an opportunity for what people might consider cheap shots," said the group's vice president, Russ Ditzel.
Not building on heartache
But CORPUS cited the scandal in a recent statement urging the church to end a "conspiracy of silence" and become more accountable.
"We don't want to build the need for reform on the scandal and the heartache itself," said Anthony Padovano, one of the group's founders. "There should be married clergy and women clergy even if there's not a single problem with celibacy."
Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-host of an interfaith radio talk show and a leading advocate of ordaining women, said the scandal reinforced her doubts about the church's insistence on all-male leadership.
"Statistically speaking, women are almost never pedophiles or sexual abusers, so if you wanted a priesthood that was not as likely to have sexual abuse, opening it to women clearly would do that," she said.
"But the primary reason to ordain women isn't to create a non-abuse culture -- it's to have justice for women."