WORCESTER -- In a blistering attack against church leaders, the lead honoree at a Worcester summit of New England Catholics angry about the church's handling of the clergy-sexual abuse crisis said yesterday that several US bishops should be jailed for failing to respond adequately to allegations of abuse by priests.
The Rev. James J. Scahill, pastor of St. Michael's Parish in East Longmeadow, told 900 cheering members of Voice of the Faithful that parishioners nationwide are engaged in ''a struggle of truth against power" in their long effort to hold church leaders accountable for alleged abuse.
On the eve of a major bishops' conference in Washington, D.C., Scahill told a packed ballroom at the Worcester Centrum Centre that by refusing to speak out quickly and decisively and remove priests accused of abuse from the ministry, some church leaders had become mere ''readers of the Gospel instead of proponents of the Gospel."
''In their complicit silence, they have betrayed truth and turned their back on children," Scahill said. ''By and large, the clerics have been myopic company puppets, instead of men."
He brought the crowd of mostly older Catholics to their feet when he remarked that there are ''certain bishops in the US who should be in jail."
In particular, Scahill named former cardinal Bernard F. Law, now the archpriest of a Vatican basilica, and said Law is ''one who should be sitting on a jail-cell cot and instead sits pompously on his throne in a Roman basilica."
In a question-and-answer session with reporters afterward, Scahill said he also believes three former Law aides -- Bishop John B. McCormack of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., retired Bishop Thomas V. Daily of the Brooklyn diocese, and Bishop Alfred C. Hughes of the New Orleans diocese -- should be held criminally responsible for clergy abuse.
An archdiocese spokeman, Larry Rasky, said church officials could not be reached for comment yesterday evening.
It was not the first time Scahill, a member of the Springfield diocese, has butted heads with church leaders. In 2002, he refused to send his parish's weekly funds to the diocese until leaders cut all financial support for the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne, a defrocked priest who was convicted of molesting children. In 2004, the diocese complied, and Scahill ended his protest by paying the diocese the withheld funds.
For his actions, Scahill was given the Priest of Integrity Award by Voice of the Faithful yesterday and hailed as a hero at the conference. He thanked the group for the honor, but said in a remark that sparked laughter and nods, ''It's regrettable that you should have to establish an award for a priest with integrity."
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who has become an advocate for abuse victims, said Scahill's stand has come at a price. By challenging church leaders, Scahill is risking his pension, insurance benefits, salary, and even his automobile, Doyle said.
Doyle told the summit that his fellow priest ''took the incredible risk of looking beyond his own security to help the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the powerless, and the abused."
Doyle also attacked church leaders, questioning why more priests had not spoken out forcefully to bring alleged abusers to justice. He excoriated Catholic dioceses nationwide for spending millions on lawyers and public relations firms to defend themselves against allegations of abuse, saying the response resembled ''the theater of the absurd."
''Why has there not been a groundswell over this horror, the rape and sodomization of children?" Doyle asked. ''That's an answer known only to God."
Half-joking, Doyle wondered aloud about his own future in the church, given his scathing criticism.
Doyle and Scahill were part of a daylong program titled ''It's Not History. It's Time For Renewal."
The conference featured panels that included alleged abuse survivors, priests, and victims' advocates. It also included discussions on coping with parish closings, keeping parishes safe from pedophiles, and fostering more spiritual participation from parishioners.
Held on the eve of a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, speakers at the conference directed their anger at church leaders but also discussed the need to get more input from parishioners. Founded in Wellesley in 2002, Voice of the Faithful, now based in Newton, says it has 30,000 members in 50 states and 39 countries.
During a panel discussion with abuse survivors, Cyndi Desrosier, who said she was abused by a Worcester priest, said parishioners cannot take their children's safety for granted even after widespread allegations of abuse resulted in some convictions.
''It's no different than dealing with a baby sitter," Desrosier said. ''Don't leave your kids alone with a priest. I'm sorry, but that's how I feel."
Scahill later echoed the call for parishioners to become more involved in the church's future. ''One of the enemies of change is for the laity to be apathetic and indifferent," he said. ''Lay people by and large want Jim Scahill and Tom Doyle to disappear."