Clergymen who molested a child once in the past could continue serving a parish under certain conditions, such as if they undergo counseling and agree to public disclosure of their misconduct, the bishops said in a proposed national policy.
All abuse would have to be reported to civil authorities.
The report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will be put to a vote when bishops from around the country meet June 13-15 in Dallas. Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the panel, said the proposal would undergo extensive revisions before the June meeting to incorporate opinions from other bishops.
``The committee had its most challenging debate with regard to priests with past acts of sexual abuse,'' Flynn said. ``We are deeply sympathetic to the feelings of victims/survivors who have experienced years of suffering due to sexual abuse, but treatment and the power of Christian conversion (redemption) have made a difference in some cases.''
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, one of the most active priests in aiding victims, said the document's contrition ``is certainly extraordinary.''
But ``there have been so many promises made,'' he cautioned. If even one or two bishops continue to treat victims with hostility, ``that will blow the bottom out of any credibility they wish to restore,'' Doyle said.
At least 225 of the nation's more than 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the scandal began in January.
The document did not say the bishops would seek Vatican authorization to make the policy binding on each diocese. However, Flynn said the Holy See would be asked to review the plan and approve whatever changes may be needed in church law specific to the United States.
Dioceses also would commit to openness regarding clerical misconduct.
Bishops would no longer enter into confidentiality agreements when settling civil lawsuits unless the victim insists. Such agreements have been common in the hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements that dioceses have paid since the 1980s.
``Let the sun shine in,'' Flynn said. ``There should be no secretiveness.''
Church leaders should provide a complete description of a priest's personnel record if the cleric seeks to transfer to another diocese, it said.
The proposal also includes creating a national child protection office. The president of the conference would appoint a review board - including parents - to examine annually how dioceses were responding to abuse, and bishops would create support programs for victims in each diocese.
Still, the committee did not address concerns about how much dioceses have paid and where they found the money.