Vatican City -- American cardinals meeting with Pope John Paul II reached consensus on a "one-strike-you're-out" policy that would dismiss any priest involved in a future sex abuse case, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick indicated Wednesday.
The Washington archbishop said, however, that there were still some questions about whether a similar tough policy should be applied to cases that occurred in the past and have now come to light.
"I've got to pray about that and listen to the lay people," he told reporters at the edge of St. Peter's Square after lunch with the other U.S. cardinals and John Paul on the final day of a two-day summit of U.S. church leaders.
Asked if the cardinals were moving toward agreement on a one-strike policy, he replied, "Absolutely." Asked whether there was consensus, he said: "I think so."
The cardinals and bishops were still drafting their final statement, which would be released Wednesday evening, closing an extraordinary gathering of U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials trying to stem a sex abuse scandal that has shaken the American Church .
McCarrick told reporters there was no doubt what the pope had intended when he opened the gathering Tuesday. The pontiff said "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."
The pope repeated his positions when he sat down for a lunch of pasta, meat, vegetables and wine with the U.S. delegation on Wednesday, McCarrick said.
McCarrick said the Americans were working toward a nationwide policy for every diocese. "This is what the Holy See is expecting."
McCarrick told NBC's "Today" that his personal approach would be to pull the abusive priest "out of his present ministry" and to alert civil authorities.
The priest would then be sent to a "therapeutic center to get evaluation," McCarrick said. After that, a panel - made up mainly of lay people, such as "doctors, lawyer, psychologists, men from the law enforcement agency, mothers and fathers" - would review the handling of the case.
McCarrick said he was not sure if specifics of the plan would be spelled out in a final communique from the two-day Vatican meetings. Instead, it would provide "definitive guidelines" for U.S. bishops to work on when they meet in Dallas in June.
Though America is in the spotlight, several cardinals commented that it was not only a U.S. problem. Recent scandals have hit the church in Austria, Ireland, France, Australia and the pope's native Poland.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said he made that point in his own remarks to the meeting, and emphasized the importance of priests in religious orders who are often "moved from country to country" and make up half the world's clergy.
In his address Tuesday, John Paul recognized the damage the scandal has caused the church. "Many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted," the pontiff said.
Using the strongest language yet, the pope laid out the agenda at the outset by decrying abuse both as an "appalling sin" and a crime against society.
His phrasing seemed to say U.S. bishops should refer abuse accusations against priests to secular authorities. In the past, some bishops have not, causing an uproar.
Cardinals emerged from Tuesday's session, a meeting Wednesday and talks with the pope over lunch, saying they backed a tough line of notifying police and "zero tolerance" of abusive priests.
On Tuesday, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told The Associated Press that "if a vote was taken now, I'm sure most of the cardinals would be for zero tolerance."
But there was debate over what to do with past cases, or cases in which the abusive priests repents and undergoes therapy.
George said he was not so sure about "zero tolerance." He raised the possibility of a priest who was rehabilitated, repentant and given a ministry "far away from children."
"The important issue is to protect the children," George said.
New York Cardinal Edward Egan said the issue can be looked at from two sides.
"How do we handle it when someone comes in and says that someone has done something wrong? Can you immediately walk away from the person?" Egan told AP as he left his hotel for Wednesday's meeting.
"I don't think you can vilify either position. I think you can make a case for either position," Egan said.
In an open letter to American Catholics released in the United States, U.S. bishops' head Wilton Gregory lamented that church leaders had believed "we had made considerable progress" in dealing with sexual abuse but the recent scandal has "all but wiped (it) out."
Two disputes were off the table on Wednesday, Mahony said: whether Boston's embattled Cardinal Bernard Law should resign and whether the church should consider relaxing the celibacy rule for priests. He said the first is a matter between the pope and Law, who is accused of mishandling sex abuse cases. The second does not fit this meeting's purpose, though he indicated it would be on the church's future agenda.
"Our focus is on what can help the church today and next week," he said.
While Catholic liberals see ending celibacy as a long-term remedy, conservatives - notably including the pope's spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls - want new enforcement to keep homosexuals out of the priesthood, even if they maintain celibacy.
Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit said behavioral scientists think "it's not truly a pedophilia-type problem but a homosexual-type problem." He said bishops need to "cope with and address" the extent of a homosexual element in Catholic seminaries.
And Gregory acknowledged that "it is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men."