A Roman Catholic bishop told a conference on women in the church here last weekend that much of the church's credibility is tarnished by sexism in the church.

"The justice issue is a justice and equality issue," Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy told 1,500 people attending the three-day conference.

"When justice or equality do not exist, the church's credibility as a sacrament of unity is challenged," he said. "When the church does not fully apply its social teaching {on justice} to women in the church, we have no right to tell society how to treat women justly in the work force."

He called sexism "an evil that divides the human family." It is "a sin," he said, "when individually or systemically intended."

Murphy was one of a half-dozen bishops at the unofficial conference organized by a for-profit firm that conducted a similar gathering here last year. Participants, mostly women but with a sprinkling of priests, paid $105 plus hotel and meal costs to attend.

Identifying himself as "a member of a sexist church," Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., joined in the call for an attack on the issue.

"It's not a matter of rearranging the furniture but of open-heart surgery," Bishop Untener said of changes needed in the church. "When it comes to sexism in the church, I think we have to name it, acknowledge it and make no excuses. Only then can we deal with it in a healthy way."

The conference followed the worldwide synod of bishops in Rome at which discrimination against women was widely discussed. But the final recommendations of the synod, which ended on Oct. 30 and addressed the roles of lay Catholic men and women, rejected calls by American bishops to open all nonordained ministries to women.

Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., chairman of a committee of U.S. bishops drafting a document on women's concerns, expressed disappointment with the synod's outcome. He pointed out that the synod declined to undertake a study on allowing women to become deacons -- an ordained ministry open to married men -- even though the Vatican called for such examination a decade ago in a document that reiterated the church's ban on women priests.

"It {a study} wasn't seen as anything that could be destructive back then, so what's the problem now?" he said. Imesch added that the question of altar girls should be "the biggest nonissue in the world" since it's only a matter of allowing girls to hand cruets containing water and wine to priests during mass.

Sister Lora Ann Quinonez, former director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents American Catholic nuns, said the recent synod revealed an underlying contradiction between the antidiscrimination "values" of the world's bishops and their refusal to "institutionalize those values" by changing church structures.