The leader of America's Roman Catholic bishops urged his fellow prelates Monday to repair the bonds with rank-and-file Catholics that have been broken during nearly two years of crisis over clergy sex abuse (search).

Bishop Wilton Gregory (search), opening a national meeting of bishops, said the clergymen should reach out to victims "with perseverance and with love" and pray that they will forgive church leaders who had failed to act decisively against guilty priests.

"If the scourge of sex abuse is to be effectively eliminated, then the energy of the whole church needs to be directed to this end," he said.

Gregory, of Belleville, Ill., said bishops also should realize that their actions within their own dioceses affect all church leaders and said that bishops can "do better" in helping each other serve Catholics.

"Rather than being something that divides us, the sexual abuse crisis can and should become a rallying point not only to make the church a safe environment for all children, but our whole society as well," said Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (search).

The meeting is the bishops' fourth national gathering since the abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston in January 2002 and spread to dioceses throughout the country.

The bishops' conference has enacted a mandatory discipline policy for guilty priests and has commissioned an unprecedented official survey on the extent of abuse in the church.

Victim advocates, however, have said the bishops have not done enough, and they planned a silent vigil Monday outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting.

Recent polls, meanwhile, indicate that Catholics in the pews are responding somewhat positively to the bishops' reforms. The National Review Board, the lay panel the bishops appointed to monitor their response to abuse, will report on the church's progress Tuesday.

In other business, the bishops are expected to vote on a statement about popular devotional practices, such as pilgrimages, and how they must remain consistent with church teaching.

Another measure is meant to clarify how Sunday services should be celebrated if no priest is available. More than 3,000 of the 19,000 U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The bishops also will be asked to vote on a document clarifying the church's position on same-sex unions.

And they will decide whether to draft a document urging compliance with the church's ban on artificial contraception. Surveys have found Catholics use artificial contraception at the same rate as non-Catholics and people who are not religious, the bishops said.

The prelates also will consider revising their guidelines for investing the $175 million portfolio held by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Under the proposed changes, the conference would avoid businesses involved in pornography, stem cell research and cloning.

The current guidelines already ban investments in companies that produce contraceptives and weapons, and discriminate based on race and gender.

Church leaders will vote on a wide-ranging pastoral statement about agriculture that touches on the plight of family farmers and field workers, and on international trade and genetically modified foods.

Coadjutor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, the former Vatican representative to United Nations' agencies in Geneva, will discuss Catholic thinking on war and peace.