Aug. 25--The board of the nation's largest network of Catholic sisters is calling for systemic change in the church in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis, particularly in the exercise of the power of Roman Catholic bishops.

In a seven-point statement, issued Saturday, the board also calls for inviting Catholic laity, clergy and religious brothers and sisters to work with bishops in forming policies and in making decisions. Such collaboration would renew the church, they said.

The statement is stronger than one the board issued earlier this year. "We wanted to update the statement we made in April to reflect what has happened since then," said Sister Mary Ann Zollmann, who was installed Thursday as the new president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. "It's important for women religious that we own our part of the church."

The board members crafted the new statement based on hundreds of notes and comments made over six days last week by 1,000 participants at the annual national meeting of the conference, held at the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown. The 20-member board completed the statement Saturday after two and a half days of discussion at the Mercy Center in Des Peres.

All conference participants are elected leaders of religious communities, such as the Franciscans, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph and the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. The various orders have 76,000 Catholics sisters. "We are calling for a more open and inclusive church," Zollmann said. She is a St. Louis native, a former principal of her alma mater, the old Xavier High School in Midtown. Now she also serves as an elected leader of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is based in Dubuque, Iowa.

The board members crafted the statement to reflect their recognition of the integrity of most priests, concern for those wrongly accused and understanding that there is a range of criminal culpability among abusing priests. The statement stops short of criticizing bishops, mentioning cover-ups, or reassignments of known abusers, but clearly asks for lay persons to have more input. "As Catholic sisters, as Christians, who believe in redemption, we also wanted to hold out the chance that some (of the abusers) might have the hope of rehabilitation for some work," Zollmann said.

The board puts confidence in the faithfulness of lay Catholics who "are the church" and in newer lay Catholic movements to help restore the church, she said.

Statement by leaders of Catholic sisters:
"We are outraged by the harm done to anyone, especially children, abused by Catholic clergy, brothers, or sisters. We ask (women religious) to do all within their power to assure that such harm will never recur.

"We grieve with victims and their families and ask our members to listen and respond compassionately to them. We abhor the behaviors of perpetrators and we desire to see them prevented from doing further harm.

"Yet, we cannot affirm any policy, which makes no distinction among offenses committed or possibilities of rehabilitation. We pledge to respect appropriate confidentiality while also dealing with these matters openly and honestly, and we call our members to do likewise.

"We stand in solidarity with those who have been falsely accused and support their search for truth and justice. We support the countless Catholic clergy, brothers, and sisters who continue in faithful service. We call upon religious leaders, ourselves included, to screen candidates for priesthood and religious life with great care, to provide appropriate formation in human sexuality, and to apply standards of conduct with great vigilance.

"We are convinced that the current crisis calls for systemic change, particularly in the exercise of ecclesial power. We call for the inclusion of laity, Catholic clergy, brothers and sisters in the formation of policies and in decision-making which will allow for collaborative renewal of our church.

"Our Christian commitment calls us to justice, mercy, and that form of love which is forgiveness. Thus, we call upon our members to join our pledge to continue working from a contemplative stance for reconciliation and for a more inclusive and open church."

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