LOS ANGELES - Pope Benedict's representative in the United States today urged Catholic bishops to transform the reputation of a church still tarnished by the nationwide paedophile priest scandal.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the new apostolic nuncio, or papal ambassador, to the United States, told the US Conference of Catholic Bishops he was saddened that the church was best known for a scandal involving abusive priests and complicit bishops. But he did not suggest specific ways to improve the church's image.
"It cannot be that the church in the United States is known for a sex scandal," Sambi told some 300 bishops and cardinals assembled for their biannual meeting.
"There are many positive aspects of the church in America that have to be known. Individually, and as a body, we have to transform this situation of suffering and pain into a occasion for resurrection," Sambi added.
The abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002 and has spread to almost every Catholic diocese in the nation.
Several priests have been prosecuted, multimillion dollar payouts have been made to scores of paedophile victims and church files revealed that some bishops repeatedly transferred priests accused of abusing minors to other parishes rather than reporting them to police.
The 2002 bishops conference pledged a "no tolerance" policy for priests guilty of sexual abuse. The scandal was not on the agenda for this year's three-day meeting in Los Angeles.
The victim support group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests planned a demonstration outside the venue calling for the ouster of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. George, who was accused of shielding a priest accused of sex abuse as recently as last year, accepted blame for the case in February but has not stepped down.
The group also released a letter it had delivered to Sambi expressing disappointment in the US bishops' response to the sex abuse and cover-up scandal.
"Much of what they tout as reforms we see as public relations," the letter said.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, told reporters that screening was now in place for those who work in the church and men training to be priests.
"Archbishop Sambi mentioned this is something we cannot put aside, but that we not see this as all that defines the mission of the church in the United States," Kicanas said.
Sambi urged the bishops to work on proclaiming Christ's teachings, adding jovially, "I think the United States and the church in the United States have something more precious than Coca-Cola or Marlboro cigarettes to bring to the world."