NEW ORLEANS -- The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has named a special committee to examine sexual abuse in the church, acknowledging that the problem has sapped clergy morale, diminished public confidence and pushed aside too many other issues in the bishops' conference.
"I want to make sure that all of us bishops understand the depth and the 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 level," said Bishop John B. Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., chairman of the new Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.
The panel will make recommendations on how to prevent clergy members from engaging in sexual abuse and how to handle abuse cases when they do occur. The panel will eventually consider other aspects of sexual abuse, including steps the church can take to reduce the incidence of abuse among families, officials said.
The bishops also received recommendations yesterday from a 30-member think tank they convened last February urging immediate action on sexual abuse. "The hierarchy's authority and credibility in the United States is eroding because of a perceived inability to deal more effectively with the problem of child sexual abuse," said a report from that meeting.
Among the recommendations was a rule that priests and other church workers "who have offended against children should never return to any ministry that includes minors." It was not clear whether that would bar priests from parish work.
The consultation -- which included church officials, victims, victims' family members, mental health professionals and others suggested, however, that recovering abusers not be barred from all ministry.
The think-tank recommendations now go to the new sexual abuse panel.
The panel was named as some abuse victims complained that the bishops were unwilling to discuss the sometimes antagonistic treatment they said they had experienced from church officials.
Members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests have picketed the bishops' semiannual meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here, demanding that bishops pledge not to sue those who complain publicly about past abuse or use other tactics that "re-traumatize clergy abuse victims."
Barbara Blaine of Chicago, national director of the Survivors Network, said officials of the bishops' conference had rebuffed the group's efforts to meet with them this week.
But the February think tank did include some survivors. The recommendations included uniform national standards for seminarians.
"It remains possible and probable" that a seminarian who is considered a potential abuser "can be rejected by one diocese or religious order and still find a place in another diocese or order," said the Rev. Canice Connors, the chief of one of the three Catholic treatment centers handling clergy offenders and the chairman of the think tank.
"Now is the time to collaborate in defining national minimum standards which would prevent seminary 'hopping,'" said Father Connors, president of the St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md.