DALLAS – The Roman Catholic Church came face-to-face with its sex abuse scandal Thursday, as their leader and victims of sexual abuse both spoke candidly before hundreds of Catholic prelates gathered at a hotel in Dallas.
Craig Martin of St. Cloud, Minn., wept as he recounted his story of abuse. He said he came forward "to break the silence and the pain that was killing him" and help others, asking the bishops to focus on healing instead of the legal issues surrounding abuse claims.
Another victim — Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher of Juneau, Alaska — told the bishops she was molested by a seminarian her family had befriended.
"This crime has left deep scars on my soul," Gonzales said.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged the bishops' role in creating the scandal, and pledged to take action to restore parishioners' badly shaken faith in the church hierarchy.
"We ask your forgiveness," Gregory said, addressing his organization's convention in Dallas. "We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse," he admitted.
"We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or — God forbid — with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse," Gregory said. "We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this."
Martin tried to maintain composure as he told of the damage caused by a priest who abused him as a child. He said the priest who abused him would take Martin fishing and molest him. Martin could not even use his own name when telling his tale: he referred to himself as "John Doe."
Martin said he blocked out the experience for years, suffered from alcoholism and depression and directed his anger at his parents.
Gonzales, who grew up in Oregon, said her abuser told her not to tell her mother what happened. She said she repressed the memory, but it came flooding back years later when she was pregnant and the priest visited her family.
The abuse made her suicidal at times, she said, and she received counseling on and off for 18 years.
The bishops rarely allow lay Catholics to speak at their meetings, but three experts on the abuse problem were given the floor Thursday morning after Gregory.
Historian R. Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame, one of the morning speakers, urged the bishops to give lay people a greater role in governing the church. He warned they would risk more scandal if they did not.
"The apologies from bishops and the cardinals will not be heard until you go beyond the rhetoric of mistakes and errors and name it for what it is — a sin born of the arrogance of power," Appleby said.
Other scheduled speakers included editor Margaret Steinfels of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, and Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychoanalyst who specializes in treating abuse victims.
Thursday afternoon the bishops take up proposals to reform the way the church handles molestation claims, including zero tolerance — the issue of whether to oust any priest found guilty of a single case of abuse. Those closed-door talks could continue into the evening. Public debate and action is scheduled Friday.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in an interview that "I think we need to take a look at some sort of sanctions" concerning bishops, though perhaps not during this meeting.
He remained adamant about zero tolerance, insisting that the bishops must defrock any priest guilty of past abuse. The cardinal vowed that he and other bishops would continue that strict policy in their dioceses even if this week's national meeting and the Vatican agree on a looser standard. "We're not backing off," he said.
Mahony also wants a national commission proposed to investigate the current crisis to work at an accelerated pace with higher status, a broader mandate and more independence from the bishops.
A committee drafting the reform package, led by Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, worked late into Wednesday night on that and other amendments from bishops, 107 pages worth. The committee is supposed to release its conclusions later Thursday.
Flynn's committee only issued its original draft for discussion June 4, an extremely tight time frame for an important Catholic policy statement.
All of the nearly 400 retired and active bishops in the United States are invited to this week's conference, but only the active prelates — who number around 285 — can vote on the policy.
"The task that we bishops have before us these days in Dallas is enormous and daunting," Gregory said. "We are called to put into place policies that will insure the full protection of our children and young people and to bring an end to sexual abuse in the church. This we will do."
Since January, when the crisis began with the case of a pedophile priest in Boston, at least 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests have resigned or been suspended over sexual misconduct claims. Four bishops also have resigned, but none have left their post because they mishandled abusive clergy.
While Gregory has repeatedly apologized for the bishops' role in the crisis, his remarks Thursday were perhaps his most direct yet.
"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this," he said. "We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.