WASHINGTON -- Victims of sexual abuse by priests should be treated with compassion and dealt with openly, a Roman Catholic bishops' committee recommended to the church's U.S. hierarchy yesterday.
The panel, one of several to make presentations at the general meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, also urged leaders of the church to formulate policies that would cover a range of sexual misconduct, from pedophilia to harassment. And it urged setting up an advisory board to evaluate the policy periodically.
"The best way for us as bishops to deal with accusations of child sexual abuse by clergy is in a spirit of openness, justice and compassion for all the people of the church," said a written statement by Bishop John F. Kinney, the committee's chairman.
The draft report, which was scheduled to be released tomorrow, was released early in response to about two dozen protesters who stood outside the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where the nearly 300 American bishops were meeting.
The picketers, members of a national organization called the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), carried signs with slogans such as "Stop the cover up. Protect the victim, not the perpetrator."
Although some dioceses have improved their treatment of victims of sexual abuse, church responses overall still fall short, said David Clohossey, SNAP's national director.
"Abuse thrives in secrecy," said the 38-year-old, who says he was molested by a priest at age 12.
"I think the bishops may act out of being overwhelmed and confused, not out of malice, but that's no excuse," he said.
According to SNAP, some dioceses have tried to intimidate sexual abuse victims by filing counter-suits, verbally attacking them, or failed to follow through on promises to provide treatment to victims.
The bishops' report, titled "Restoring Trust: A Pastoral Response to Sexual Abuse," said that most dioceses already have a policy on how to handle sexual abuse complaints.
Of 178 dioceses surveyed, 157 reported that they had policies in place, according to the report. In addition, 118 dioceses had policies that covered sexual harassment and exploitation as well as pedophilia. There are 188 dioceses in the nation.
The four-day convention was kicked off by a keynote speech given by conference president, Baltimore's Archbishop William H. Keeler, whom Pope John Paul II recently announced would be elevated to cardinal.
In his speech, Archbishop Keeler made clear that church leaders were still unhappy about the severe criticism the Vatican encountered for holding fast to its stand against most birth control measures at the World Population Conference held earlier this year in Cairo, Egypt.
"I am once again profoundly struck by the difference between this church as I know it, serving its own people and all of humanity, and the church I see reported in the news media," said bTC Archbishop Keeler, adding that often the media presented "prepackaged" images of the Catholic Church.
"We do indeed have a story to tell. It is a story of accomplishment as well as a story of hope," he said.
In addition, Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard of Baltimore will present today a proposed pastoral response to the "culture of violence" in the United States.
In the proposed statement, the bishops condemn the "violent measures" society uses to deal with its problems: abortions, euthanasia, assisted suicide and increased reliance on the death penalty to punish criminals.
Bishop Ricard expressed concern yesterday that many of the recently elected politicians seem to oversimplify what measures are needed to solve problems of crime and poverty.
"We are concerned about the way a lot of politicians think about solutions . . . so much of their solution is 'bumper sticker morality.' [Violence and poverty] is a much more complicated problem," he said.
At this semiannual convention -- the first held since Pope John Paul "definitively" ruled out the possibility of women being ordained as priests -- the bishops also will vote on a number of issues, including pushing for more leadership roles for women in the church.
A carefully worded statement on the role of women is meant to appease those who were disappointed by the pope's earlier letter, especially more liberal members of the church in the United States .
The statement, which will be voted upon later this week, is titled "Towards Strengthening the Bonds of Peace," and outlines the ways women in the church may take leadership roles.
In their introduction, members of the "Committee on Women in Society and in the Church" note that "many people received the [pope's] letter with joy and peace. . . . Others were disturbed."
Other issues the bishops will vote on this week include:
* Three segments of a new translation from the Latin of the Sacramentary, the official book of prayers said at Mass.
The revision, the first in 25 years, is considered such a huge project that its completion will take several more years; four more segments must be considered and voted upon at later meetings.
* A proposed revision -- the first since 1975 -- of the bishops' "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" will be heard Thursday.