DETROIT – The nation’s Catholic bishops open their annual conference today in Washington, D.C., fresh from major political victories but facing deep divisions among their 64 million members, including continuing controversies over their efforts to deal with the sex abuse scandal and recent moves to close big-city churches because of a shortage of priests.

In Boston, angry Catholics have kept 24-hour sit-ins, trying to save eight churches set for closing in the wake of expensive sex-abuse settlements and the lack of priests. New York Cardinal Edward Egan is talking about the looming parish mergers and closings in his archdiocese, as well.

And in metro Detroit, Cardinal Adam Maida’s staff recently signaled to Catholics that closings are likely in 2005, not because of settlements paid to abuse victims, but because Maida soon will have too few priests to staff his 304 parishes in six counties.

As the bishops gather in Washington, they should be wary of taking too much credit for electoral victories, two of the nation’s top experts on voters’ attitudes said last week.

There’s little evidence that bishops are swaying their followers’ political views, but there is strong evidence of a chasm in social attitudes dividing American Catholics, said Frank Newport , head of the Gallup Poll. A Gallup telephone poll on the eve of Election Day showed Catholic voters backing John Kerry over Bush 52 percent to 48 percent.

Plus, 51 percent of Catholics continue to describe themselves to pollsters as pro-choice, Newport said. In saying that, “those Catholics are ignoring the teachings of their church. Overall on abortion, the Catholic population looks the same as the American population as a whole.”

The winner of the Catholic vote on Nov. 2 is still in question, said John Green, an expert on religion’s impact on politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

National exit polls reported the exact reverse of the Gallup phone survey, Green said. The exit polls, conducted in person outside a sampling of polling places, showed Catholic voters favoring Bush over Kerry 52 percent to 48 percent.

“Maybe Gallup is right or maybe the exit polls are right,” said Green, but two things certainly are true: First, “a lot of people are going to be exploring these issues in the next year to find out what happened,” and second, “Catholics, as a group, look as divided as the rest of Americans on a lot of issues.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Washington through Thursday, is virtually unanimous in its unswerving loyalty to Vatican instructions, but signs of political division within the church are likely to surface on a variety of issues.

On the bishops’ agenda, for example, is a debate and vote on the text of a new book, called “The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults,” that will summarize church doctrine and social teaching. The bishops also are set to debate whether to join a new umbrella group, Christian Churches Together in the USA , that is trying to build a broad Christian coalition to work on goals that include the environment and poverty.

Maida said that, while opposition to abortion is the most pressing political issue for Catholic leaders, he hopes that his colleagues will use their influence in the Republican Party to lobby for programs to aid the poor and America’s ailing big cities.

“I’m very concerned about the injustice of poverty,” Maida said. “And, there are walls of prejudice that still separate us in many places, including Detroit, and those walls need to be torn down.”

For Catholics in the pew, however, one of the most urgent issues of the bishops meeting is likely to be the discussions about revising policies on the abuse of minors by priests.

Joe Maher, the Detroiter who heads a national support group for accused priests, said last week, “I anticipate the bishops will try to gracefully rescind their zero-tolerance policy.” Maher said the church must protect children and must not tolerate abusive behavior, but priests who were suspended for accusations of misbehavior decades ago should be given a chance to return to work.

The idea of restoring abusive priests to active duty infuriates many Catholics, said David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. But the idea that the bishops may soften their policies doesn’t surprise him.

“We’ve seen many warning shots fired in the things bishops have said and done,” he said.

Maida said he supports continuing strict policies to combat abuse and annual audits of compliance across the country. But many viewpoints are likely to surface among his colleagues, he said. “The bottom line is that I know we’re all committed to protecting children, but … we’ll have to see what is said in the discussions in Washington.”

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