August 13, 2002--As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops take time out starting Wednesday to pray, fast and repent for the clerical sex abuse scandals, there's growing acrimony over whether the reform policy they approved in June is too harsh or too lenient.

Victims advocates are accusing bishops of lax enforcement, while some influential church voices are complaining that abusers are being scapegoated when some can be rehabilitated.

There's also been criticism of the national and local review boards, meant to watch over the church's reform efforts.

One result of all the turmoil could be an extraordinary, or ``plenary,'' council to discuss the overall American church situation. Eight bishops proposed that idea to colleagues July 18, and at least 40 other bishops have registered support for the meeting since. It would be the first meeting of its kind since 1884.

This week's prayerful focus on the sex scandals is part of the bishops' abuse reform package, approved overwhelmingly June 14 in Dallas.

The bishops designated Wednesday for private fasting and penance over their past failings, followed by prayers of repentance on Thursday - the feast of the Virgin Mary's Assumption and a day when Catholics are obliged to attend Mass.

The bishops invited priests and lay Catholics to join them in prayer, though any public observances were left up to each local diocese. Whatever events are held, they'll come amid an atmosphere of increasing public discord.

Last week, leaders of the nation's religious orders - representing roughly a third of the 46,000 U.S. priests - decided that abusers should continue in church work under ``severe restrictions'' and be kept apart from youths.

That's less restrictive than the bishops' policy, which says offenders should be reduced to lay status, or else limited to a life of ``prayer and penance.'' Both organizations agree that offenders will not perform public functions, such as saying Mass for parishioners.

The Rev. Canice Connors, president of the orders' association, said the bishops - with their harsher penalties - could be looked on as joining the media, victims and rank-and-file Catholics in ``scapegoating abusers.''

The scapegoating charge also was leveled by an influential conservative, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, in the current issue of his First Things magazine.

He said the bishops' actions on sex abuse were ``morally dubious,'' resulted from panic, and were sinful violations of Christian teachings on mercy and justice.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests thought little of the religious orders' efforts to stop abuse, and is equally dubious about the bishops, claiming instances of lax enforcement in at least five dioceses.

Two lay members on a 10-person review board in Richmond, Va., quit because Bishop Walter F. Sullivan did not consult them before reinstating the Rev. John E. Leonard, who was charged with improprieties as a seminary principal. After The Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported new allegations, the diocese referred the case to secular prosecutors this week.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who chairs the review board charged with national oversight of the bishops, also has been under attack.

``Is this the right man to lead bishops' abuse panel?'' asked a headline last week in Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic newspaper, which said his get-tough statements about bishops and priests ``have raised eyebrows across the country.''

Subsequently, the governor's own prelate, Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, and the newspaper of Cardinal Bernard Law's Boston Archdiocese criticized Keating for suggesting that parishioners dissatisfied with their bishop's actions should withhold contributions or attend Mass elsewhere.

In another dispute, bishops on Long Island and in Bridgeport, Conn., have refused to allow parishes to host meetings of Voice of the Faithful, a group inspired by the abuse crisis that wants to get lay members more involved in governing the church.

If bishops want to iron out the broader issues provoked by the scandal with a plenary council, it would require Vatican approval and wouldn't occur for at least another year.

Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., one of the eight original proponents, said such a meeting must be based on the church's needs and not ``taken over by the media to the extent the Dallas meeting was. The agenda has to be ours, not that of the media.''

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