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With strong condemnations and words of regret, America's top Roman Catholic leaders made it clear they understand action is desperately needed to stem the clergy sex abuse crisis.

But real action has yet to occur - that will have to wait until a critical June meeting of U.S. bishops.

The two-day Vatican summit concluded with the Americans outlining what they'll recommend to their fellow U.S. prelates for a policy dealing with abusive priests. Yet the shape of any comprehensive plan remains unclear.

Equally uncertain is whether this week's tentative first steps will do much to satisfy outraged parishioners.

Coming out of their gathering with Pope John Paul II and Vatican statesmen, U.S. church leaders readily agreed on some points: There's no scientific link between pedophilia and celibacy. Seminaries need a close look to make sure they uphold church sexual teachings. And, quoting the pope's words this week, abuse of minors is a civil "crime" and an "appalling sin."

But a multitude of difficult issues remain.

Example: Must all past and future allegations be referred to civil authorities, as many bishops are now deciding to do?

Should lay parishioners be given new power to monitor bishops' and priests' conduct? And above all, what about "one strike and you're out"? Does one abusive act automatically mean a priest should be defrocked?

These and many other matters now roll forward to the June bishops' meeting. There, the hierarchy will aim to create "national standards" that could then be made binding with a Vatican endorsement.

That backing from Rome is a key point. Traditionally, discipline of clergy has been totally the domain of local bishops.

Another point the U.S. leaders made in their final communique from Rome Wednesday night was that they want to make it possible for individual bishops to defrock clergy without cumbersome appeals to the Vatican. That's something the American bishops have been after since 1989, and they may now feel they can get it.

The bishops should be emboldened by John Paul's firmest words yet on the whole problem. Besides his sin-and-crime statement, repeated by the Americans, he said to victims and their families: "I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."

Victims are already wary about this, however. Reports of predatory priests consistently surfaced for 18 years until the whole ugly situation exploded with the John Geoghan case in Boston last January.

Nor are victims likely to be mollified by John Paul's explanation of the bishops' past inaction. He said "a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem" and "the advice of clinical experts" lured bishops into "wrong" decisions and "mistakes."

Parishioners are talking instead about malfeasance, culpability and the ignoring of credible charges.

And the faithful on both ends of ideological spectrum had something to be disappointed about at the Vatican summit.

The meeting beat down one of liberal Catholics' favorite issues, relaxing the celibacy rule, and the final communique avoided a specific reference to ridding the priesthood of homosexuals, a conservative demand.

Realistically, the conferees could not address another matter - whether Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law should leave, five years short of normal retirement. That's up to John Paul and Law, several prelates said.

As the U.S. cardinals and bishops flew back to America Thursday, it seemed obvious that the "zero tolerance" policy was the most divisive of the unresolved issues.

The pope declared Tuesday that "people need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles are convinced the pope thereby meant a man will be out of the active priesthood for good after a single instance of molesting a minor. But Cardinals Edward Egan of New York and Francis George of Chicago aren't sure that's what the pope requires.

Priest-psychologist Stephen Rossetti, who treats abusers at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., writes in the Jesuit weekly America that those who prey on prepubescent children (called "pedophiles" by clinicians) need what amounts to lifetime parole.

Priestly abuse of teenagers is still a "heinous crime," he said, but perpetrators can often resume productive lives with proper treatment and supervision. Still, Rossetti concludes, "the public is saying no," so zero tolerance is the safest policy for bishops.

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