August 9, 2002

PHILADELPHIA (AP)--Leaders of Roman Catholic religious orders said they could keep young people safe from sexually abusive priests, rejecting criticism from victims' advocates who say the groups are too protective of errant clergy.

The Rev. Canice Connors, a Conventual Franciscan who has overseen treatment for sexually abusive priests, said critics were ignoring data indicating that some offenders can be treated.

Referring to victims, Connors said, ``we clearly have received the message of their fear. We have also responded adequately.''

Connors was attending the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an association of the heads of orders. It is evaluating how the sex abuse policy approved by U.S. bishops in June should be adapted for religious communities. About 15,000 of the nation's 46,000 priests belong to orders such as the Jesuits and Benedictines.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said they feared the groups would not protect children because they have said their errant members were still like family and deserved compassion.

``I would sooner find a jail cell than a place for a sex offender in my family,'' said Mark Serrano, a SNAP national board member.

Members of SNAP had asked to address the conference, but Connors - also the conference president - said he heard the group speak to the bishops and felt this week's event should focus on making a plan.

SNAP organized a news conference at the hotel where the meeting was being held.

Conference workers saw Serrano and the others in the lobby and invited them to use a media room.

The Rev. Ted Keating, a Marist and the conference executive director, said the orders, like the bishops, would bar abusers from face-to-face contact with parishioners. But the religious communities said they would find roles for the men in administrative positions far from children. The bishops decided that any church work was too risky for offenders.

One-third of priests from religious orders work in parishes, with the rest serving in hospitals, schools and other ministries.

Under church law, bishops have authority over religious-order clergy working in dioceses. Dozens of the estimated 300 clergymen taken off duty this year because of abuse claims are members of religious communities.

The conference ends Sunday.

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