The nation's Catholic hierarchy, stung by charges that the church has not dealt adequately with the growing problem of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy, released a statement this week defending the church's response.

In its first comment on pedophilia among priests, the United States Catholic Conference said that local dioceses are taking steps to prevent child abuse and to repair "whatever damage has been done."

The statement also cast child sexual abuse as a broad social problem, emphasizing that pedophilia, the disorder of abusers, "is neither a church nor a clerical problem exclusively, but one affecting religious and secular groups alike."

The church has faced increased criticism and charges that it is trying to sweep the damaging scandals under the rug as instances of sexual abuse by clerics have become known in recent years. Lawsuits have accused individual dioceses of failing to discipline pedophile priests.

The USCC statement said the hierarchy has been at work on the problem since 1985, when the full body of bishops held a closed-door session on pedophilia during its meeting in Collegeville, Minn.

The bishops "are deeply committed to addressing such incidents positively, to making strong efforts to prevent child abuse, to repairing whatever damage has been done, and to bringing the healing ministry of the church to bear wherever possible," the USCC statement said..

Individual dioceses, the statement said, have developed programs aimed at prevention of child abuse as well as guidelines for dealing with reported instances, including suspension of the priest involved "whenever appropriate."

Dioceses are committed to efforts "to heal the victims and their families, rehabilitate the offender, and reconcile all involved in the ministry of the church."

The statement said that in light of medical evidence showing that most sex offenders were themselves victims of abuse as children, the bishops' "efforts have been, and will continue to be, directed towards assisting those involved to break that cycle here and now, through positive programs of prevention and education."

The church agency "has already undertaken programs for the education of bishops and their advisers, health officials, diocesan administrators, attorneys and others."