As scores of U.S. Catholic bishops left a downtown Washington hotel Monday evening to board buses for a Mass, a group of nearly 100 demonstrators -- including several who had been sexually abused by priests years ago -- offered candles to each of the prelates and asked for their prayers.
A few bishops took the candles, but most kept their gaze straight ahead.
Some protesters said the experience brought back feelings of rejection they thought were in the past. "As each one refused to take a candle and walked right past me, it solidified the pain," said Melissa Price, 32, of Tampa, who said she had been sexually abused by a priest for eight years as a child.
The scene illustrated how the bishops this week have maintained their distance from victims' groups and other church critics, in contrast to the atmosphere at the bishops' landmark meeting in Dallas five months ago.
The Dallas conference invited victims of sex abuse by priests to meet with small groups of bishops and cardinals. Lay Catholics spoke at the bishops' formal sessions and publicly rebuked them for their handling of pedophile priests.
At the conference at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, which began Monday and ends tomorrow, there have been no such invitations and speeches. Those who had voiced hopes after Dallas for a new relationship between the laity and the prelates said they are dismayed.
"It's clear to us that Dallas was an aberration," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group. The meeting in Washington "feels like meetings 10 years ago when we were out in the hall trying to meet individual bishops as they went to lunch or the bathroom. Survivors are discouraged; our members feel very betrayed."
Representatives of Catholic lay groups seeking reform in church governance said they also feel frustrated about their lack of access to the bishops this week.
"It's a very strange experience because there is no way to connect," said Susan Troy of Wellesley, Mass., a member of the Catholic lay group Voice of the Faithful. "So we just sort of loiter in the lobby."
Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, said it was not possible to arrange meetings between the bishops and all the groups seeking to address them. Before arriving, she added, "all the bishops have spoken with victims and have heard from the victims."
The bishops are to vote today on Vatican-requested changes to the child sex abuse policy they adopted with much fanfare in Dallas. They have argued that the changes will not weaken the policy, which called for the permanent removal from ministry of any priest who had sexually abused a minor.
"The idea that a person who perpetrates in this terribly bad fashion will be back in ministry is some kind of a myth," Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, said Monday.
Groups representing abuse victims disagree. Clohessy said his group wants the bishops to challenge the changes demanded by the Vatican, particularly a proposal for church tribunals to hear allegations against priests. The tribunals, he said, "will discourage victims from coming forward because they are secretive and composed of priests instead of lay people."
The bishops, he added, "should negotiate with Rome, not capitulate to Rome. . . . Instead of hiding behind Vatican bureaucrats and canon law, they need to persuade Vatican bureaucrats and change canon law."
Like several other activists, the Rev. Gary Hayes of Kentucky, who is associated with Link Up, another organization of victims of clerical sexual abuse, was told by church officials that he could not give television interviews inside the Hyatt Regency, a more restrictive policy than the one followed at the Dallas conference. "They are circling the wagons against what they see as some kind of threat to their authority," Hayes said. "That's sad."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a press official for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said about 325 media representatives were given credentials to cover the 250 or so bishops attending the meeting. She said on-camera interviews were banned in the hotel lobby so that people could easily walk through it.
Despite tight security at the hotel, about a dozen people from Soulforce, an organization calling for a more liberal church stance on homosexuality, staged an impromptu demonstration in the hotel lobby yesterday. When they refused to disband, District police led away three of the protesters as their supporters broke into applause. The three were charged with unlawful entry.
At a news conference yesterday, officials of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests demanded that bishops begin to hold themselves accountable for the sexual abuse scandal. The organization said it would like to see some bishops resign and other bishops publicly censure colleagues who retained sexual abusers in ministry.
At the same time, the group praised eight bishops for taking steps such as increasing outreach to victims, public disclosure of priests removed for child abuse and disclosure of financial settlements with victims. Among the eight was Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, who is the only church prelate so far to publicly name all the priests credibly accused of child abuse in his archdiocese.
"We're encouraged by that, and we're asking that [other bishops] do more of the same," said Barbara Blaine, president of the survivors group. Although "the Dallas document was a major step in the right direction," she added, "at this point, it appears to us that every proposed measure offering any strength to that document is related to priests. There's not one mention of strengthening anything in the document that would impact victims. . . . We will continue to challenge the bishops to do better."