"We cannot turn our backs on our brothers," the Conference of Major Superiors of Men said in a two-page document approved yesterday by a unanimous vote. "He remains a member of our family."
But they promised to keep offenders away from young people - as they said they've routinely done - and closely supervised.
The annual meeting was held in the midst of a national explosion of revelations about abuse by Catholic clergy. It drew nearly 80 regional heads of such religious orders as the Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans and Jesuits, and about 90 other nonvoting members. The vote came at the end of a three-day session at the Adam's Mark Hotel.
Members of religious orders account for about one-third of the 45,000 Catholic priests in this country, but there are no reliable figures on how many of them have been involved in abusive behavior. About 400 diocesan priests have been dismissed this year on sexual abuse charges.
"Vengeance, anger, retribution do not necessarily solve problems," the Rev. Ted Keating, CMSM's executive director, told reporters after the vote.
Defrocking and evicting an abusive priest or brother after decades in community life could send him into "massive regression... with the potential for more abuse," he said.
"It's our presumption that if you want to protect children, the best way is to keep these men in religious life and supervised."
The superiors' nearly unanimous decision to keep all but the most intractable abusers in their orders came almost two months after the nation's bishops voted in Dallas to dismiss and defrock any diocesan priest who abuses a child.
In another departure from the bishops' action, the religious superiors did not endorse mandatory reporting of abuse allegations to civil authorities.
CMSM's membership emphatically condemned sex abuse, however, calling it "abhorrent" and asserting that it "violates our most fundamental values as religious."
Members agreed to create a national oversight panel that would monitor how orders handle abuse cases, but orders would not be obliged to submit to it.
Groups representing victims of abuse were at the meeting and on Thursday called on the superiors to adopt a dismissal policy.
"I would sooner find a jail cell than a place at the dinner table for a sex abuser in my family," said Mark Serrano, a vice president of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
In addition to creating a national review board, CMSM yesterday approved five other cautiously worded measures calling for "research" or "consultation" on methods of intervention and treatment, public accountability, and better collaboration between communities. They also called for "dialogue" with, among others, bishops, women's religious groups, abuse victims and abusers.
CMSM's leaders emphasized throughout the conference that theirs is a "service organization" with no authority to impose the collective will of its membership on any religious community or superior.
Throughout the meeting, they appeared to be walking a delicate line. While stressing that they "honor the values and principles of the Dallas charter," they emphasized that living in religious community is a "unique situation" distinct from the rectory life most parish priests know.
"We are not assembled to score quick points for or against the bishops or to seek the endorsement of any constituency," the Rev. Canice Connors told his fellow superiors in his welcoming remarks Wednesday night.
Father Connors has spent 30 years in treating clergy for psychiatric problems, including sex abuse. He is the former president of the Southdown Institute in Toronto and St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., which are treatment institutes.
He warned his confreres against trying to pass a "litmus test" of public opinion, calling zero-tolerance "a war slogan, a mobilization of absolutes."
Father Connors was an adviser to the bishops at their June meeting in Dallas and helped them draft the policy that he spent much of the last week criticizing.
In Dallas, under the scrutiny of about 700 members of the news media - the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that is binding on every diocesan bishop in the country. That charter obliges every diocese to report any allegation of clergy sex abuse to civil authorities immediately and to create diocesan lay panels that will advise bishops of the handling of cases.
It also authorized establishment of a national review board that will monitor how dioceses handle abuse cases and publish annual findings.
The bishops were pressured by repeated revelations that some bishops had knowingly relocated abusive priests to new parishes whenever new victims came forward.
Most religious-order priests teach in schools or colleges, or work in parishes or hospitals, or serve the poor. A small portion live in monasteries.
There are also about 7,000 religious brothers and monks who live in communities.
About 30,000 Catholic priests are diocesan priests, most of whom work in parishes. They are governed by a bishop.
Leaders of CMSM initially expressed surprise and uneasiness with the dozen or so journalists who appeared at their annual meeting. "We're not really used to this," Father Connors remarked.
Sex abuse was a late addition to the meeting's agenda, and all discussion of the topic were behind closed doors.
Father Keating said that while most leaders of religious orders "believe we are doing a good job" in protecting children, the recent abuse scandals had forced the spotlight on them.
"The public wants us to show with transparency that we're doing well," he said.