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WASHINGTON - Many Roman Catholics in the United States still believe that priests are sexually abusing children, says a report from a lay advisory group released Wednesday by the nation's bishops.
The National Review Board said that, a decade after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a child protection charter, there has been a "striking improvement" in the way the Church deals with the abuse of minors by clergy.
"Children are safer now because of the creation of safe environments, and action has been taken to permanently remove offenders from ministry," said the report, released as the Conference began its annual spring meeting in Atlanta.
But it acknowledged: "Despite solid evidence (to the contrary), many of the faithful believe that sexual abuse by clergy is occurring at high levels and is still being covered up by bishops."
"This suggests a trust problem that must be met with scrupulous adherence" to the 2002 charter, which instructs dioceses to report alleged child-abuse incidents to civil authorities.
The report came a day before jurors in Philadelphia resume deliberations in the trial of Monsignor William Lynn, the highest-ranked US church official to be charged with covering up child molestation.
Lynn, 61, who took the witness stand for three days during his 10-week trial, is not charged with molesting children, but rather with covering up crimes of priests who did.
He faces between 10 and 21 years in prison if convicted of child endangerment and conspiracy to endanger children, prosecutors say.
In February, the Church -- badly shaken by child abuse scandals in several countries -- launched a global Internet center against pedophilia, after a four-day Vatican summit aimed at ending decades of abuses and cover-ups.
The National Review Board said "credible allegations" had been made against 1,723 clerics since 2004, in addition to 4,392 who had faced some level of allegations up until that year.
Church vs contraception provisions
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops convened in Atlanta for three days as the officially non-partisan Church steps up its fight over contraception provisions in President Barack Obama's health care reforms.
They claim that obliging Catholic-affiliated charities, hospitals and schools to include the cost of contraception in their health care plans is a violation of the freedom of religion.
Like evangelical Christians, the Church is also at odds with Obama -- who is up for re-election this November -- over abortion and marriage equality for gays, both of which it fiercely opposes.
Earlier this week, the Conference announced a "fortnight for freedom" beginning June 21 with events at dioceses around the country aimed at highlighting religious liberty.
It will conclude on Independence Day, July 4, with a televised mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the biggest Catholic church in the Americas.
In its report, the National Review Board recalled how, prior to 2002, bishops often quietly resolved child abuse allegations with victims' families and confidentiality agreements, which now are banned.
The current policy of cooperating with legal authorities, it added, "is in the best interest of the Church."
The Catholic church is the largest religious denomination in the United States, with nearly one in four Americans identifying themselves as Catholic.