Vatican City Pope John Paul II told American church leaders Tuesday that there was no place in the priesthood "for those who would harm the young," saying sex abuse by priests in the United States was both a sin and a crime.
The cardinal of Los Angeles said the pontiff had taken a strong step in favor of "zero-tolerance" for abusive priests. But he and other Americans at the meeting said there was no discussion of the possible resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of mishandling sex abuse cases.
Addressing U.S. cardinals and bishops at the start of an extraordinary two-day meeting, John Paul made his toughest statement since allegations of sex abuse by priests began pouring out in January, shaking the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God," the pontiff said. "To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."
While in the past the church has been accused of sheltering priests accused of abuse, the pope's remarks appeared to indicate that the church would put up no impediments to cooperation with authorities investigating crimes.
"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," he said, according to the official English text of the speech released by the Vatican.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the subject of Law's possible resignation was not raised in Tuesday's session or in a private meeting of the prelates the night before.
But Law admitted to the group that "if he hadn't made some terrible mistakes, we probably all wouldn't be here," George said.
Law is under pressure over his handling of abuse cases especially those of two known abusers in the Boston archdiocese who were moved from parish to parish. After a secret visit to the Vatican, he said last week that he would not resign.
Twelve cardinals and two bishops from the United States met with Vatican officials in Rome to find ways to stem the scandal that has shaken the confidence of the faithful, led to the resignation of one bishop, and cost the church millions of dollars in legal settlements. Church officials have been accused of covering up misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job.
Outside the United States, sex scandals have cropped up in other countries in recent years, including Austria, Ireland, France and Australia and the pope's native Poland.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the Americans would meet Tuesday night and work out a list of formal proposals for the U.S. church that should lead to a specific communique at the end of the meeting. One cardinal has proposed creating a nationwide panel of prominent Catholic laymen and women "make sure we have the best possible standards," Mahony said.
Mahony said the pope made "the strongest language I've seen about what we call at home 'zero tolerance"' for abusive priests. The pope "made it very clear that there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who abuses minors," he told The Associated Press.
But Chicago's George said the issue wasn't entirely clear because the pope spoke of the possibility of "Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God."
Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida said that while in the past sexual abuse was seen as a sin, "today we view it as a crime." He said reports of abuse in his archdiocese were taken to civil authorities for investigation. "That's the way to handle it," he said.
"We need to root out the priest or other people who would take advantage of our young people," he told CNN.
John Paul acknowledged the extent to which the scandal has hurt the American church. "Many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter," he said.
He acknowledged bishops have made wrong decisions in the past. "You are now working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated," he said.
Since revelations began emerging early this year in the United States, the pope's only previous public reference to the issue came in a pre-Easter letter to priests March 21. He said a "dark shadow of suspicion" had been cast over priests "by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said four cardinals and Bishop Wilton Gregory head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops spoke at the gathering Tuesday. "The tone was one of basically informing the Holy See, with greater detail and emphasis," of the situation, he told NBC's "Today" show.
Another issue on the table is whether homosexuals should be excluded from the priesthood, as suggested recently by the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
Gregory said, "It is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men."
The Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, had reported that some participants would push the Vatican to ask Law to resign. The cardinal reportedly said senior prelates had asked him to take the Law case directly to Vatican officials close to the pope.
Law declined comment here, merely noting his Sunday remarks in Boston that the church "must spark immediate and decisive changes."