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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church must strengthen safeguards against any further sexual abuse of children by its clergy and expand the role of women in the Church, a Canadian bishop said on Friday in a speech to hundreds of his peers at a Vatican conference.
In his address to the Synod of Bishops, convened to discuss how to battle dwindling numbers of practicing Catholics in the face of growing secularization and dissent against its teachings, Bishop Brian Joseph Dunn called on the Church to "become more authentic in our contemporary world".
Synod documents have so far largely focused on the role of external factors like consumerism and secularism in eroding belief, and its concluding document will be scrutinized for any mention of failures within the Church itself.
Dunn said church leaders must "consider the reasons why this crisis happened" and "put into place measures which will create safe environments for children and all who are vulnerable in the faith community".
Abuse scandals have been one of the greatest challenges faced by the Catholic Church, forcing it to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation worldwide and undermining its status as a moral arbiter.
The head of the diocese of Antigonish in eastern Canada, Dunn called on church leaders to "appreciate the depth of hurt, anger and disillusionment associated with this scandal".
Dunn also called for "a deliberate and systematic involvement and leadership of women at all levels of Church life," but stopped short of calling for a female priesthood. The Church's opposition to women priests has proved one of its most divisive regulations.
The Vatican says it has no authority to allow the ordination of women because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles, while advocates of a female priesthood say he was merely conforming to the norms of his times.
Leading religious scholars have said that greater integration of women into Church structures could help reduce cases of abuse, which were largely perpetrated by men.
On Thursday Pope Benedict, in an apparent reference to the sexual abuse scandals, acknowledged that "bad fish" and "human fragility" existed within the Church.
The pope has met with abuse victims on a number of his trips outside Italy and has apologized for the abuse, but it remains the biggest stain on the institution.
The conference, an important event for the Church that aims to build consensus between its different branches and work out a common strategy, will draw on speeches made to offer advice to the pope.
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Michael Roddy