WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a Roman Catholic bishops' committee that has been struggling for nine years to write a pastoral letter on women's concerns said yesterday he did not see enough votes to adopt the final draft -- even if it were further amended.
Criticism of the 100-page document, especially from Catholic women's groups, has focused on its firm rejection of the possibility that there could ever be female priests in the Catholic Church.
The letter is the most controversial issue before the nearly 300 members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting here.
Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., chairman of the drafting committee, held out little hope for passage of the fourth version of the letter, which comes up for a vote today, and said the effort to reach a compromise proved divisive.
"We have managed to alienate at one time or another every identifiable male and female group along the way," he said.
Other controversies also surfaced yesterday. About a dozen victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests demonstrated in front of the Omni Shoreham Hotel as the four-day meeting of the bishops began.
Holding signs that said "Priests are not above the law," "Help us heal" and "For starters, just listen," the group conducted a sidewalk press conference, detailing numerous allegations of child abuse in many dioceses and requesting a meeting with the bishops.
A closed-door session with three representatives of the bishops was quickly arranged. The victims met for about an hour with Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Bishop Harry J. Flynn of Lafayette, La., and Auxiliary Bishop Alexander James Quinn of Cleveland.
Afterward, Cardinal Mahony said the meeting "was one of the most moving experiences of my career." The cardinal said he would favor a national study by the bishops' conference of the problem of pedophile priests.
David Clohessy, 36, who described himself as one of two altar boys abused by a priest in Jefferson City, Mo., in the early 1970s, said the bishops' representatives looked favorably on a proposal of a national day of prayer for such victims.
Dennis A. Gaboury, 41, of Baltimore, organized the demonstration by three national groups of priests' victims and their families -- whose membership now totals nearly 4,000. Mr. Gaboury is one of about 100 people who have charged that they were abused as children by a former Massachusetts priest, James R. Porter, who is under indictment.
"I have a brother who is a Catholic priest, and he is a wonderful man," Mr. Gaboury said yesterday. "This is not an anti-clerical movement. We are not anti-church."
But many Catholic dioceses still have no effective policies to deal with sex abuse by priests, he said, adding, "There are cases right now of priests being transferred to other parishes just like Father Porter was."
In a joint appeal to the bishops, the three organizations of victims said, "You need to hear what happens to Catholic families who turn to their church for solace and justice and are met by legal obstructionism."
While the much-debated and reworked pastoral letter on women appeared headed for rejection, several of the bishops said they hoped it would be referred to a permanent committee on women in the church and society as a step toward further study and dialogue.
Bishop Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, N.Y., chairman of this standing committee, said many good elements in the 100-page document could be salvaged that way.
He and other bishops pointed to the approval of a statement on domestic violence against women as an example of what can be accomplished apart from formal adoption of a lengthy pastoral letter.
The domestic violence statement, references to which drew strong applause at yesterday's meeting, calls on Catholic priests to "make your parish a safe place where abused women, and men who batter, can come for help." It urges parish priests to "learn as much as you can about domestic violence" and to "be alert for the signs of abuse among parish women."
Today, it is expected that Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, currently vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, will be elected president for a three-year term. He is on record as supporting the proposed pastoral letter. But Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy, who has taken a public stand in favor of ordaining women, opposes passage of the letter.
While none of the four drafts gave real encouragement to the many U.S. Catholics who favor women's ordination, the version up for a vote today contains the strongest language barring such an eventuality.
The wording was influenced by the Vatican. While Pope John Paul II has repeatedly said that the Roman Catholic tradition of an all-male clergy will stand, it is not a popular prohibition among many of the Catholic laity.
Last June, a Gallup Poll of U.S. Catholics found that 67 percent of those surveyed supported the ordination of women. Nearly 60 percent favored women bishops and 80 percent were in favor of women being ordained as Catholic deacons -- seen as a step toward the priesthood.