After months at the center of the church's sex abuse scandal, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston presided over the nation's Roman Catholic bishops yesterday as they began shaping a statement questioning the morality of a preemptive U.S. war on Iraq.

Lay Catholic groups immediately objected to the choice of Law as a moral spokesman. As soon as he took the lectern, they said, he undercut the bishops' credibility and highlighted one of the intangible costs of the scandal: its potential undermining of the church's voice on social and political issues.

Law presided over part of the morning session of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in his role as chairman of its committee on international policy. The bishops formally asked the committee to draft a statement on Iraq, and Law said the document probably would outline the traditional Christian criteria for a "just war" and question whether the Bush administration has met those ethical standards.

Later in the day, Law also gave a news conference on the bishops' positions on foreign affairs, including a plea for the release of Monsignor Jorge Enrique Jimenez, a Colombian prelate who was abducted by suspected guerrillas outside of Bogota on Monday.

It was only the second formal press conference given by Law since mid-February, when Boston area Catholics began calling for his resignation because of revelations that he and his subordinates had knowingly transferred a pedophile priest, John Geoghan, from parish to parish.

For months, Law had kept a low profile, avoiding reporters and public appearances at which he might be questioned. But since early October, he has gradually reemerged, appearing at a bridge dedication in Boston, meeting with priests and apologizing in person to victims and parishioners, while making clear that he does not intend to resign.

"For 10 months I have been apologizing," he said. "But I think what happens is, our experience grows and I think we don't need to do that [apologize] only once, I think we need to do it many times."

Law declined to give his personal opinion on U.S. policy toward Iraq, saying his committee would attempt to reflect the consensus of the bishops' conference. He indicated that the statement would not flatly declare a U.S. attack on Iraq to be unjust.

Rather, he said, it would follow the tack taken by the conference's president, Bishop Wilton D. Gegory, in a Sept. 13 letter to President Bush that explained the traditional Christian criteria for going to war, including a just cause, declaration by a legitimate authority, a probability of success and "proportionality," meaning that the war must not produce greater evils than it eliminates.

"The value of this letter and this approach is the raising of these kinds of questions around the just war theory," Law said.

In past years, the bishops have issued highly publicized -- and highly critical -- pastoral statements on the death penalty, land mines, nuclear deterrence, hunger, Third World debt relief and labor justice issues.

But their previous semiannual meeting this year, in Dallas in June, was devoted to the problem of child sexual abuse by priests. At this week's meeting, the bishops have worked on statements on immigrants' rights, domestic violence and abortion, but media coverage, lay groups and protesters have focused on the bishops' revisions to the "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual abuse adopted in Dallas.

The muffling of the bishops' voice on social justice issues "is a terrible casualty of this crisis over sexual abuse and the bishops' own mishandling of it," said Claire Noonan, spokeswoman for Call to Action, a grass-roots group seeking changes in church policies.

"The war on Iraq is the most pressing foreign policy issue before us, and the church has something very strong to say about it. Why wouldn't they put forward a spokesperson whose reputation doesn't call into question everything he says?" Noonan said.

Cardinal Bernard Law, listening to question, has had low profile since sex abuse scandal broke out in Boston.