Washington's Roman Catholic Archbishop James Hickey had a decade of experience in El Salvador -- and some unhappy memories to go with it -- before he arrived here this week as part of a high-ranking U.S. church delegation.

As bishop of Cleveland before he came to Washington in August 1980, Hickey was the church official responsible for a group of Ohio-based missionaries working in this country. He recalls urging his charges to leave El Salvador during a trip here in March 1980 because of rising violence. But the group of about a dozen priests, nuns and lay workers insisted on staying.

Eight months later, National Guardsmen murdered two of the missionaries, Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay worker Jean Donovan, together with two American Maryknoll nuns.

"I told them that night, 'I think I'm going to have to call you home, or at least transfer you to another country,' " Hickey said in an interview yesterday afternoon. "Well, you'd think that I had told them to rob a bank or shoot somebody. They said, 'What kind of shepherds are we if we leave our people when they need us? What will they think of us? What will they think of the church?' The two that led the charge were Sister Dorothy and Jean Donovan . . . . Little did I know that before the year was over they would die."

The U.S. church delegation flew back to the United States this morning after three days of meetings with top government officials and Central American bishops. Delegation leader Archbishop John O'Connor of New York said that El Salvador's human rights record clearly has improved in recent years, but he left unclear whether the group would recommend that the U.S. church enndorse increased U.S. military aid to the government here.

"Everybody we talked to, without exception, seemed to think that El Salvador still has some human rights problems that it must continue to address. But the impression that we are given is that the trend is in the right direction," O'Connor said at an airport news conference shortly before departing.

The U.S. Bishops' Conference in the past has opposed significant increases in military aid to El Salvador. It also has urged that delivery of such aid be linked to progress in human rights and peace efforts. The delegation could not yet issue a "judgment" on whether to recommend changing these positions, O'Connor said, because "we have not completely sorted out our impressions."

The delegation did conclude that the church's past positions on aid to El Salvador "have certainly been valid during the period that they were developed," O'Connor said.

Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who is regarded by church observers as more liberal than O'Connor on Central American issues, made a point at the news conference of reaffirming that statement.On this trip, arranged through the Salvadoran church and repeatedly labeled as nonpolitical, Hickey said he took special interest in inquiring about human rights issues. These included use of U.S. military aid and the apparently stalled investigation into whether higher-ups ordered the churchwomen murdered.

"We don't think that the United States should be in the process of giving guns that are going to be used in violations of human rights," Hickey said.

"I first started coming to El Salvador in mid-January of 1975," Hickey said. "In about 1977 or 1978, we were beginning to get these concerns. Our catechists started to disappear. They'd be found tortured, dead. Then the situation got progressively worse.