Confronting a problem that has increasingly undermined confidence in their leadership, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday took their first steps toward creating a nationwide policy for investigating and preventing the sexual abuse of minors by priests.
At their semi-annual meeting, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the creation of a special committee of eight bishops to draw up a plan for rooting out past and potential offenders, providing care to victims and preventing further misconduct.
"I want to make sure that all of us bishops understand the depth and seriousness, the pain and the agony of this problem, and why it strikes at the very heart of the church's trust level and credibility," said Bishop John Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., who will head the new committee.
He warned the 238 bishops gathered here that the process may "involve uncomfortable listening, nationally as well as back home," adding, "It might be messy listening, but that might well be necessary if we are to lance the boil."
At the meeting, the bishops also released for the first time the recommendations made by 31 psychotherapists, church officials and victims' advocates who met last February at the bishops' invitation. The group issued an impassioned report urging the church to act quickly and decisively to deal with child molestation, an issue that it said was eroding the church's authority in the United States.
"The allegations of sexual misconduct against Catholic priests and the perceived inability of some authorities to respond with decisive pastoral leadership has resulted in a sustained crisis in the church," the report said.
Among other things, the group recommended that priests who have molested children remain under permanent supervision, getting no further opportunity for unsupervised contact with minors _ a policy that would almost certainly prevent former offenders from ever resuming their work as parish priests.
These were among the group's other recommendations:
Making the welfare of victims the church's highest priority in dealing with sexual abuse of children by priests. Victims should receive help in paying for therapy and church officials should take the lead in seeking out other victims.
Calling a national day of prayer and penance for victims, families, perpetrators and all the parishes that have been affected.
Providing as much information as possible about allegations of sexual abuse by priests and the resolution of the accusations while protecting the rights of the victims and the accused.
Promoting education about child sexual abuse throughout the church and supporting scientific research on the problem.
Establishing crisis intervention teams and diocesan review boards to respond to allegations of sexual abuse with immediate counseling and thorough investigations. The review boards should include lay professionals and should be independent of other church bureaucracies, reporting directly to the local bishop.
Developing improved methods of screening candidates for the priesthood and of maintaining the psychological and spiritual health of clergymen.
Setting up a committee like the one announced Thursday was among the panel's recommendations. But the panel prefaced and concluded its recommendations with an ardent plea for the bishops to "not wait for future documents or additional findings" to act. The bishops' committee announced, however, is not committed specifically to the panel's recommendations beyond taking them under serious consideration.
The Rev. Canice Connors, a psychologist who directs St. Luke Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Suitland, Md., and the organizer of the panel, presented the panel's findings to the bishops Thursday. He acknowledged they were not precisely worded or nuanced and would likely need refinement before becoming church policy at the local or national level.