The nation's preeminent Roman Catholic theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles, called in a speech published yesterday for reconsideration of the "zero tolerance" policy toward sex abuse by priests that U.S. bishops adopted two years ago in Dallas.

In the speech, delivered to a Catholic group in Florida on May 27, Dulles described the Dallas policy as an "extreme response" to the sex abuse scandal in the church. He predicted the Vatican will insist on revisions when the policy comes up for renewal in December.

The speech was published by the Jesuit weekly America just four days before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is to hold a semiannual meeting entirely behind closed doors for the first time in five years. The decision by the bishops to meet in closed session next week in Englewood, Colo., had been criticized by lay Catholic organizations and sex-abuse victims' groups even before Dulles's article was published. But its appearance deepened their anxiety.

Although revising the Dallas charter is not on the agenda for the meeting, "it is very hard to believe that it won't come up," said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"When bishops want to convince everyone they're taking action, they invite the whole world to watch, as they did in Dallas in 2002. And when they're discussing backpedaling, they want no one watching," Clohessy said.

A spokesman for the bishops, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, said they have routinely held a prayer retreat every five years and need time for quiet contemplation.

"The last two years have been trying and tumultuous, a time for us bishops to examine our hearts and souls with exceptional care," the conference's president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said in a statement. The "long-planned special assembly seems a providential opportunity for us to imitate the apostles who, at the Lord's urging, sometimes left their immediate obligations to reflect prayerfully in His absence," he added.

Steve Krueger, executive director of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, said the closed meeting made him wonder: "What do they have to hide?"

Krueger said the bishops have several issues on their agenda that he believes should be debated openly, including whether to commission a second round of independent audits of their compliance with the Dallas policy, which requires the permanent removal from ministry of any priest credibly accused of abuse.

Dulles noted in his speech that the bishops have criticized legislatures for passing mandatory sentencing laws and other "one-size-fits-all solutions." But "under the glare of adverse publicity," he said, they "adopted the very principles that they themselves had condemned."

Dulles called for consideration of changes in 15 areas, including a stronger presumption of innocence for accused priests, a narrower definition of sexual abuse, a "proportional" response rather than "zero tolerance," a re-imposition of a statute of limitations and the possibility of reinstating some offenders to ministry.