VATICAN CITY -- Decrying sex abuse in the church as a sin and a crime, Pope John Paul II told American church leaders Tuesday there was no room in the priesthood "for those who would harm the young."
The pope's language was his strongest yet on the molestation scandal that has convulsed the Roman Catholic Church in the United States since January. American prelates appeared to take his words to heart, making progress toward an agreement on a new plan of action.
The pope's use of the word "crime" seemed to end any lingering debate on whether U.S. bishops should refer abuse accusations against priests to secular authorities, as many are now doing.
The Americans worked until 10 p.m. Tuesday on a communique expected to come at the close of the two-day summit Wednesday.
After the meeting, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in an interview with The Associated Press that whatever comes out of this week's gathering will be part of the process in which all the U.S. bishops will set a new policy together in June.
A gloves-off tone
John Paul's talk to the Americans, delivered in English, had a striking gloves-off tone compared with many papal utterances.
"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society" as well as an "appalling sin" before God, he said.
In comments outside the closed-door meeting, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said "practically every one of us brought up close collaboration with law enforcement" during the first round of discussions.
John Paul was emphatic about how priests should not behave.
"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who harm the young," the pope said. That made it obvious abusers must be removed. But what about readmitting them to active ministry after therapy and repentance?
In Mahony's view, the pope "made it very clear that there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who abuses minors."
"It's the strongest language I've seen about what we call at home 'zero tolerance,"' he said. Others have called this the "one strike and you're out" policy.
However, George said this wasn't entirely clear, because in another passage the pope spoke of "the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God."
In the interview later Tuesday, George said, "I want to leave myself open for the moment." He explained that "in theory" there might be cases where priests could resume if kept "far away from children."
"Are the children safe? That is the issue."
John Paul invited the Americans to continue the talks over lunch with him today.
Two disputes off table
One new idea proposed here is formation of a national blue-ribbon panel of prominent laymen and women to monitor the church's performance.
Two disputes are off the table, Mahony said: whether Boston's embattled Cardinal Bernard Law should resign and whether the church should consider relaxing the celibacy rule for priests. The first is a matter between the pope and Law, he said. The second does not fit this meeting's purpose, though Mahony indicated it would be on the church's future agenda.
"Our focus is on what can help the church today and next week," he said.