Pope John Paul II bluntly declared today sex abuse by priests in the United States "was rightly considered a crime by society," telling American cardinals at the Vatican that there was no place in religious life for abusers.
"To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," he told the closed–door meeting in a speech in English released by the Vatican.
It was the pope's strongest words to date since allegations of sex abuse by priests began pouring out in January, shaking the church in the United States.
The meeting opened a day after it emerged that there were moves afoot by fellow cardinals to force the resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of mishandling sex abuse cases.
The pope did not address that issue directly, but he did say "bishops and superiors are concerned above all else with the spiritual good of souls."
"People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," the pope said in the speech. "I ask Catholics to stay close to their priests and bishops and support them with their prayers at this difficult time."
Bishop Law said last week that he would not resign, following a secret meeting with the pope and other Vatican officials in Rome.
The pope summoned the cardinals for two days of closed–door talks after American prelates made clear the scandal was undermining the confidence of American faithful.
Since revelations began emerging early this year, the pope's only previous public reference to the issue came in a pre–Easter letter to priests.
He said a "dark shadow of suspicion" had been cast over priests "by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination."
The Vatican underscored the importance of today's meeting by announcing that much of its top brass will participate, adding Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who functions as prime minister of the Holy See under the pope, along with leaders of four other Vatican agencies.
US conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, told a media briefing, "We've passed the time for mea culpas. We're in the season for action."
The ongoing Law saga aside, differences could emerge among bishops – and with the Vatican – over whether homosexuals should be absolutely barred from the priesthood and whether to relax the Catholic rule that priests be celibate (except in Eastern Rite countries).
Bishop 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.
He made a secret visit to the Vatican and revealed a week ago that he discussed calls for his resignation and was encouraged to stay on.