VATICAN CITY, APRIL 22, 2002 ( U.S. cardinals expect a strong sign from John Paul II as they gathered in Rome for a meeting on sexual abuses committed by priests in their country. But some cardinals and observers caution that the two-day meeting won´t likely produce quick solutions.

Met by hordes of journalists in and around St. Peter´s Square, the cardinals emphasized the need to address the problem urgently and firmly.

"The Pope is troubled about what is happening," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., told reporters outside the Vatican. "I think getting together with him is for us a great sign and it´s a sign for our people that the Holy Father, who is the common father of us all, is going to become personally involved."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops´ conference, tried to downplay expectations for the meeting between the cardinals, John Paul II and top Vatican officials.

"It´s a preparatory meeting," Bishop Gregory is quoted as saying, in an interview with Newsweek magazine.

"The media may have hyped this as though next week the problem will be solved," he said. "The cardinals´ meeting and my attendance this week [is intended to foster] dialogue with members of the Curia [so that] when we meet in June we are better prepared to propose a course of action that we are fairly certain will enjoy the full endorsement of the various offices of the Holy See."

Asked if the meeting would produce any proposals, he said: "I don´t believe that any particular proposals will be coming forth because that´s the responsibility of the bishops of the United States. There will be guidance. There will be dialogue."

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the Church must do more to respond to a sex scandal. He said policy initiatives do not go far enough.

"There has to be a confession," the cardinal said before boarding a flight from the United States to Rome, according to the Chicago Tribune. "This is sinful."

Cardinal George said that during the meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, he hopes to gather information from other cardinals that will help distinguish between substantiated claims of abuse and potentially false reports.

"Even one case is a scandal," he said. But he said it is wrong to assume that sexual abuse by priests is "an epidemic that has been ignored for years."

The Church is accused of covering up sexual abuse by priests, sometimes by shuffling suspects to new parishes. The Church has paid millions of dollars in damages and faces more lawsuits. Dozens of priests have been suspended or ousted.

Boston´s Cardinal Bernard Law, who is at the center of the controversy for his role in reassigning accused pedophile priests to new parishes, acknowledged the depth of the problem in a homily Sunday in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

"The crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors is not just a media-driven or public perception concern in the United States, but is a very serious issue undermining the mission of the Catholic Church," he said.

On Sunday, Cardinal McCarrick noted that he hopes Catholics keep low expectations for the Rome summit.

"It´s only a two-day meeting, and you´re not going to be able to solve everything in a two-day meeting," he told NBC-TV´s "Meet the Press" before leaving for Rome.

The scandals have involved pedophilia, but the more common problem appears to be homosexual behavior, especially cases in which priests have molested teen-age boys. That in turn has raised questions about the need for more-rigorous screening of seminary candidates.

Asked if the screening of homosexual candidates for the priesthood would be a particular focus at the meeting, Cardinal James Stafford told the New York Times last week: "Without question, it does have to be looked at. We´ll definitely be talking about it."

Yet, that doesn´t mean the Vatican will try to micromanage the problem. "We´re dealing with an American phenomenon that requires an American response," Cardinal Stafford, a former archbishop of Denver, Colorado, was quoted as telling the newspaper.

John Paul II´s American biographer, George Weigel, was quoted by the New York Times last Friday as saying: "They have to talk about homosexuality next week. It´s clear this problem of clerical sexual abuse has multiple parts. One is pedophilia, which is the most revolting, then there are problems of heterosexual misconduct. But the largest portion of what´s come to light in the last few months is a pattern of homosexual clergy not living their celibate promises."

Bishop Gregory, the head of the U.S. bishops´ conference, when asked in the Newsweek interview whether the topic of homosexual priests would be broached, responded: "I would not be surprised. However, I think that the focus should be on, and this is what I´ve continually said: The focus must be on the safety of children! That´s A-number one!"

He added: "It doesn´t mean these other issues are not important. They are. But they are issues that will need a lot longer discussion and will take a longer time to bring clarity. What we must be focused on is making sure that children are protected!"