(RNS) The leader of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops has formally apologized for a growing scandal of sex abuse cases involving Catholic priests, saying the bishops "have all been enlightened" by the experience.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the U.S. church is growing more responsive to the widening crisis and is developing ways to address the issue.

"The law rightly makes clear that sexual abuse of minors is a crime," Gregory wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared in USA Today on Feb. 13. "We have all been enlightened. We continue to learn from our experiences, and hopefully, even more from our mistakes."

Gregory did not refer directly to a sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Archdiocese of Boston and Cardinal Bernard Law. According to one recent poll, half of Boston-area Catholics want Law to resign for his handling of a pedophile priest who was repeatedly assigned to parish work, despite charges he was molesting hundreds of children.

Since the case of the now-defrocked priest, John Geoghan, first broke in January, the archdiocese has given the names of more than 80 priests accused of molestation to prosecutors. Critics say Law was more concerned about protecting Geoghan and other priests than protecting his victims.

The Gregory statement was part of a larger package on the bishops' Web site, "Restoring Trust: A Response to Sexual Abuse," detailing how the church has responded to the issue. A conference spokesman said the package reflects a "dramatic improvement in the handling of these cases, a fact which many of the media have insufficiently recognized."

Gregory said the nation's 350 bishops and 47,000 priests "share in the shame and humiliation felt by our laity," but also lauded the good works of the church, including social services and education.

"We know there are victims whose cries may still not have been heard," Gregory wrote. "We apologize and regret the pain of all of those who have been affected by this horror more than these words can convey."

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