VATICAN CITY, APRIL 23, 2002 ( Labeling child sexual abuse an "appalling sin" and a crime, John Paul II told U.S. prelates there is no place in the priesthood and religious life "for those who would harm the young."

John Paul II delivered that strong message today to the American cardinals and bishops gathered with Vatican officials to address the problem of sex abuse by priests in the United States.

The Holy Father also expressed his appreciation to the U.S. cardinals and bishops for their effort "to keep the Holy See, and me personally, informed regarding the complex and difficult situation which has arisen in your country in recent months."

He said he was confident that their "discussions here will bear much fruit for the good of the Catholic people of the United States."

John Paul II stated his profound grief over the fact "that priests and religious, whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young."

The Pope lamented the fact that, because of this harm, "the Church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the Church´s leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter."

The type of abuse that caused this crisis "is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society," he said.

"It is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God" and, because of this, to "the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern," the Pope added.

The Holy Father acknowledged that "a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong." Now, however, bishops are "working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated," he said.

The Pontiff emphasized "the immense spiritual, human and social good that the vast majority of priests and religious in the United States have done and are still doing."

He added that a "great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains," and expressed his gratitude to the U.S. Catholic communities, "to their pastors and members, to the men and women religious, to teachers in Catholic universities and schools, to American missionaries in all parts of the world" for their work.

The Pope insisted that what has happened "is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the Church but society as a whole. It is a deep-seated crisis of sexual morality, even of human relationships, and its prime victims are the family and the young."

John Paul II said forcefully that people "need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young," and expressed his confidence that "this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community."

The Holy Father ended his address by begging "the Lord to give the bishops of the United States the strength to build their response to the present crisis upon the solid foundations of faith and upon genuine pastoral charity for the victims, as well as for the priests and the entire Catholic community in your country."

The Pope also asked U.S. Catholics "to stay close to their priests and bishops, and to support them with their prayers at this difficult time."

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, addressed the opening session.

This "is a distressing time for the Church and for all of us," he said. "The joy of Easter must be the disposition of our heart and the source of our confidence in addressing the present difficulties."

"Our task is to reflect on the problems of the present moment with great openness of spirit, knowing that the Church should be transparent," the cardinal added.

The Pope´s statement won praise from U.S. Catholics for his acknowledgment of victims´ suffering and the need for a more aggressive response by Church leaders, the Associated Press reported.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has been critical of how U.S. Church leaders have dealt with the crisis. But he applauded the Pope for labeling sex abuse a "crime" and for noting how victims have suffered.

"The fundamental problem is a lack of discipline," Donohue said. "Pope John Paul II understands what needs to be done."

Svea Fraser, a member of Voice of the Faithful, a lay advocacy group established after the crisis erupted in Boston, saw the Pope´s statement as a first step toward rebuilding trust in the Church.

"For many of us, it has not shaken our faith in God or our religion, it has shaken our faith in some of our leaders, and we look to the Holy Father for guidance and leadership right now," AP quoted Fraser as saying.