The leader of the group representing most American nuns challenged the Vatican's reasons for disciplining her organization, insisting that raising questions about church doctrine should not be seen as rebellion.

Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said yesterday that Catholics should be able to search for answers about faith without fear.

"I don't think this is a healthy environment for the church," Farrell said in a phone interview. "We can use this event to help move things in that direction -- where it's possible to pose questions that will not be seen as defiance or opposition."

Farrell's remarks are her first since she met last week in Rome with the Vatican orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which concluded in April that the group had strayed broadly from church teaching. The Vatican has appointed three American bishops to conduct a full-scale overhaul of the organization, sparking protests globally in support of the sisters.

In the Rome meeting, Farrell said she did not ask Vatican officials in to drop their demand for reform. "I think we could clearly see in the tenor of the conversation that that was not an option," she said. She said she did not leave the talk feeling any more hopeful about what's ahead.

"I don't yet feel that we're any further than just the initial conversation," Farrell said.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 U.S. nuns. -- AP

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