During the extraordinary two-day meeting, U.S. Catholic leaders navigated through sometimes contradictory guidelines set by Pope John Paul II in their bid to stem the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the American church.
John Paul insisted there was no place in the priesthood for those who would endanger children. But at the same time, he expressed reservations about giving bishops too much authority to remove priests, fearing it would be misused and recalling his own life under communist rule in Poland. The pope also reminded the Americans about the possibility of repentance.
In the end, the cardinals stopped short of a ``one strike, you're out'' policy toward abusive priests. They said Wednesday they would recommend a process to defrock any priest who has become ``notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors.'' In cases that are ``not notorious'' they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide.
The church leaders will take their recommendations to a June meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas to draw up a nationwide policy.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who many have said should resign for his alleged mishandling of sex abuse cases, told reporters at the airport as he left Rome on Thursday that the meeting was ``very good.''
``I particularly was grateful for the Holy Father's talk,'' he said. ``I think it was excellent. Very good spirit. Very frank, very open.''
Law did not attend the final press conference announcing the meeting's conclusions Wednesday evening. He told reporters, ``It was rather late, you know. I had other things to do.''
The 12 American cardinals and several top bishops involved in the talks said the subject of Law's possible resignation was not discussed.
Major battles could lie ahead when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Dallas to work out the many details left unclear in the cardinals' recommendations - including issues of what sort of abuse meets the standard to merit removal and whether civil authorities should be involved.
The cardinals' final statement Wednesday invoked the pope's comments that sexual abuse of minors is ``rightly considered a crime by society'' - but made no specific proposal about reporting abuse cases to authorities. Several cardinals had suggested they had wanted stronger language.
The reference to removing priests involved in ``serial'' attacks appeared to contradict a statement during the conference by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who indicated that the American cardinals reached consensus on a policy that would dismiss any priest involved in a future sex abuse case.
Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said he feared many in the United States would not be satisfied by the outcome of the summit.
``That leaves an uncomfortable uncertainty about offenders who are not yet serial, but who clearly have the potential to become notorious,'' Appleby said.
Roderick MacLeish, lawyer for some 180 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, denounced the meetings' conclusions. ``We cannot create a better and safer church for children without a thorough examination of the systemic causes of pedophilia within this institution,'' he said.
Still, Thomas J. Reese, editor of the weekly Catholic magazine America and a renowned Vatican expert, said there did appear to be a consensus for the outlines drawn by the cardinals.
``Where there is disagreement is over what to do with a priest who was involved in nonserial abuse 20 or 30 years ago and has been clean ever since,'' Reese said in a statement.
At the press conference ending the gathering, the head of the U.S. bishops conference, Wilton Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Ill., said church leaders were increasingly convinced that abusive priests should not be moved to new posts - a response used by some, including Law.
``There is a growing consensus, certainly among the faithful, among the bishops, that it is too great a risk to assign a priest who has abused a child to another ministry,'' Gregory said.
The cardinals also reaffirmed celibacy for priests - a policy some reformers in the United States said played a role in the abuse. The church leaders declared that ``a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained.''
McCarrick of Washington outlined a process in which an accused priest would be put on what he compared to ``administrative leave'' and removed from clerical duties while the case was investigated.
Speaking to CNN, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the new process would allow bishops for the first time to attempt to remove a priest against the priest's will. But he said the pope was reluctant to give bishops too much power.
John Paul ``lived, as he told us again and again, in a communist state where administrative law was misused against human rights,'' George said.
Even with the proposed new special process, ``there are going to be a lot of provisions in there for appeal and certitude that the rights of all parties are protected,'' he said.
Before issuing their statement, the U.S. church leaders expressed in a letter to American priests their regret for failing to prevent the sex abuse scandal and pledging to support the priests.
``We know the heavy burden of sorrow and shame that you are bearing because some have betrayed the grace of ordination by abusing those entrusted to their care,'' they said.
The Vatican meeting was called in an effort to resolve a scandal that has rocked the American church since January, leading to the resignation of one bishop and calls for another to resign, and costing the church millions of dollars in legal settlements.
Recent scandals also have hit the church in Austria, Ireland, France, Australia and the pope's native Poland.