WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 (RNS) -- The president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledged Monday the Roman Catholic Church has "at times hurt people instead of serving them faithfully" but warned against the "great temptation of cynicism" and a "search for flaws" in the church's past.

More than 300 U.S. bishops, archbishops and cardinals are here this week for their annual meeting and will weigh in on subjects ranging from criminal justice reform to the snarled peace process in the Middle East.

In his opening speech to the bishops, President Joseph A. Fiorenza, bishop of Galveston-Houston, said the church has much to be proud of but acknowledged the shortcomings of church leaders.

"Some today, for their own reasons, emphasize troubles and divisions within the church," Fiorenza said. "In the spirit of the Holy Father's own confession of sins and request for forgiveness, we know that we are not as united among ourselves as we should be and that, as always, there are difficult problems that need solutions."

But Fiorenza cautioned against the "temptation of cynicism" and said a new homegrown U.S. saint -- Mother Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia -- offers an inspiration for church members and leaders.

"This cynicism is an envy of truly good people which does not inspire imitation of them but a search for flaws which then becomes the excuse for not imitating them," Fiorenza said.

Throughout the week, the bishops will attempt to focus on pressing national and international concerns while a group of determined protesters plan an equally strong effort to rally against the bishops' most controversial positions.

As many as 500 gay rights protesters were expected to hold a vigil outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as the bishops gather for Mass on Monday night. On Tuesday those same protesters are planning a demonstration outside the bishops' downtown hotel and plan to be arrested.

Led by the ecumenical group Soulforce, the protesters say the Roman Catholic Church's positions against homosexuality are "killing" gay Catholics. So far, the bishops have said little in response. A letter from Fiorenza asked for calm during the demonstrations.

During Monday's opening session, a woman caused a stir among the bishops when she seized a microphone and begged the bishops to ordain women as priests. "Take us women down from the cross and experience the joy that comes from justice-making," said the woman, identified by observers as Janice Sevre-Duszynska.

Sevre-Duszynska would not leave the meeting room and bishops' officials refused to let the news media speak with her.

One of the most controversial items on the bishops' agenda has been postponed, angering pro-choice Catholics who say the bishops are trying to curtail womens' health care "behind closed doors."

The proposal, coming in a directive from the Vatican, would bar secular hospitals that merge with Catholic facilities from providing tubal ligation (tube-tying) services. Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, a bishop's spokesman, said discussion was postponed because the bishops have not had time to read the newest draft of the proposed changes.

Still, pro-choice Catholics say the bishops have refused to release copies of the new proposals and accused the bishops of keeping non-Catholic hospitals "in the dark" about what may or may not happen.

"We have already seen that the tendency is to say, `Oh, don't worry, everything's going to be OK, nothing's going to change,"' said Francis Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "But there's been no indication that that is what is going to happen."

During Monday's session, bishops heard opening statements on a number of proposed statements. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles presented a statement on criminal justice reform that called for "a search for justice that is tempered by mercy" but said the nation needs to move beyond "sound bite" policymaking.

"We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threatens the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way and have been caught up in crime and punishment," he said.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law presented a statement on the flaring tempers in the Middle East, calling both Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.

"Clearly, there will be no genuine peace for Israel without justice for the Palestinian people," Law said. "Nor will there be genuine justice for the Palestinian people without peace for Israel."

The bishops are scheduled to vote on the criminal justice and Middle East statements on Wednesday, as well as on a new set of guidelines for Catholic art and architecture, and a statement decrying the "culture of death" in the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on abortion.

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