WASHINGTON (AP) – The head of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops pleaded for unity within the church yesterday as he and his fellow prelates prepared to adopt a sex abuse policy that they promised will get offending clergy out of public ministry.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened a gathering of the American hierarchy with a speech focusing on the church’s future following a year of scandal. Fellow prelates stressed that the new policy – a reworked version of a plan they first approved in June – still bars guilty priests from all church work, including saying Mass publicly.

“We will eradicate this plague, this horror from our midst,” said Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., who helped draft the plan.

At the bishops’ meeting last June, Gregory set the tone with an address about the abuse crisis in which he repeatedly apologized for the church’s mishandling of molestation claims. Victim advocates noted the new focus yesterday and accused bishops of abandoning their commitment to reform.

Gregory denied there was any change. But he also said the crisis that erupted in January with the case of a pedophile in the Boston Archdiocese has “fractured” relations among prelates, priests and rank-and-file Catholics. He acknowledged clergy feel “unfairly judged” by the misdeeds of a few.

“We cannot and must never allow the particular positions that we have taken on such a serious issue, or even the mistakes that we have made in understanding and addressing it, to destroy our communion with one another in the Lord,” Gregory said.

Critics inside and outside of the church have tried to capitalize on the scandals to undermine Catholic teaching, Gregory said. He urged bishops to challenge them.

Thousands of Catholics angry about how bishops have dealt with errant priests have joined reform movements. While many support Catholic teaching, some want the church to ordain women and allow priests to marry.

“One cannot fail to hear in the distance – and sometimes very nearby – the call of the false prophet,” Gregory said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Gregory’s speech, “a real slap in the face to Catholic lay people.”

“It’s saying stop the discussion, stop the dissension. We have good priests and we’re moving on,” Clohessy said. “Their agenda here is to say ‘We’re done. We have nice words on paper. We’re moving forward.'”

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