Bishops Acknowledge Role in Crisis DALLAS (AP) - America's Roman Catholic bishops opened their historic meeting on clerical sex abuse Thursday by bluntly acknowledging that their mistakes helped cause the crisis, then yielding the floor to victims who described how pain permeated their lives. Photos AP Photo Slideshows AP Photo Catholic Church Abuse Controversy Audio / Video Victims Demand Zero Tolerance, More Accountability for Church Leaders (WFAA, Dallas) Bishops Open Priest Sex Abuse Talks (AP) The bishops followed the morning session by going behind closed doors to take up proposals aimed at reforming the way the church handles abuse claims. Whether to adopt a zero tolerance policy - ousting any priest found guilty of a single case of abuse - was among the decisions facing them. The closed-door talks could continue into the evening. Public debate and action was scheduled Friday. Outside the hotel where the meeting was being held, about 50 people protested the church's handling of abuse cases.

There were no arrests. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the meeting with a remarkably direct address, calling the crisis 'perhaps the gravest we have faced. ' Abuse victim Michael Bland, of Chicago, told the bishops how he joined the priesthood but then left after trying to convince church leaders to take action against his molester. He urged the prelates to get rid of all those who abuse children. ' The priesthood lost me but kept the perpetrator,' Bland said.

'The church has taken care of him. ' Gregory pledged to take action to restore parishioners' badly shaken faith in the church hierarchy. ' The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership,' he said. That's 'because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel.

' He admitted 'we did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps. ' The bishops rarely allow lay Catholics to speak at their meetings, but three Catholic thinkers who have been following the abuse crisis were given the chance to address the church leaders after Gregory. They were followed by the abuse victims. Bland said he came forward with his molestation claim while he was still a priest. Suddenly, he felt he 'was no longer one of the good guys but one of the victims to be dealt with.

' Bland, now a psychologist who works part time in the victims' assistance ministry of the Chicago Archdiocese, says he remains outraged that his abuser is still in the priesthood. Craig Martin, 38, of St. Cloud, Minn., fought for composure as he told of the damage caused by a priest who abused him as a child. Martin could not even use his own name when telling his tale: he referred to himself as 'John Doe. ' David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also spoke and passed around a picture of Eric Patterson, of Kansas. Patterson's parents say their son killed himself in 1999 after he was abused by their parish priest.

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. ' Gregory once again told victims he was sorry for the pain they suffered, and further asked forgiveness from the 'faithful priests' whose reputations have been marred by the misconduct of a few.

He also asked bishops who were guilty of abuse to turn themselves into Vatican (news - web sites) authorities. Victims have been pressing a radical demand - that U.S. church leaders lobby Rome to remove bishops who kept abusive clergy on duty while ignoring warnings. Bishops have not supported the idea. In his first news conference since January, New York Cardinal Edward Egan said one past abuse incident will end a priest's ministry in his own archdiocese, but he declined to say what he thinks the bishops' conference should do. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in an Associated Press interview that he remained adamant about zero tolerance, insisting that the bishops must defrock any priest guilty of past abuse.

The 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 was 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.