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VATICAN CITY (AP) _ American cardinals opened an extraordinary meeting with top Vatican officials Tuesday to discuss a sex abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Pope John Paul II was scheduled to address the opening session of the talks, being held behind closed doors in a frescoed conference room. Two days of talks were planned.

The pope summoned the cardinals after American prelates made clear the scandal was shaking the confidence of American faithful.

One report had an unnamed cardinal in attendance here joining those who think Boston's embattled Cardinal Bernard Law must step down. But Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said Law should stay and insisted that the agenda here boils down to one thing.

``We've got to make sure that people can trust their priests,'' he said. ``We are here to find out what we can do, in concert with the Holy See, to create an environment that is safe for children.''

Law's ultimate fate, whatever is said in personal conversations, seems highly unlikely to figure in the closed-door meeting that concludes Wednesday night.

The church has been rocked by waves of sex abuse scandals that have shaken the confidence of the faithful, led to the resignation of one bishop, and cost the church millions of dollars in legal settlements. Church officials have been accused of covering up misconduct by priests, in some cases by moving known abusers from job to job.

McCarrick agreed with the pope's weekend remarks that were interpreted as taking celibacy off the agenda. ``It's a straw man to bring that up at this time,'' he insisted. It seems likely most participants will agree.

The Vatican underscored the importance of this meeting Monday by announcing that much of its top brass will participate.

Previous announcements said the heads of the Vatican congregations, supervising bishops and clergy would meet with the dozen U.S. cardinals and the president, vice president and general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But now Rome is adding Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, who functions as prime minister of the Holy See under the pope, along with leaders of four other Vatican agencies.

Underscoring the urgency here, the U.S. conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., told a media briefing, ``We've passed the time for mea culpas. We're in the season for action.''

The ongoing Law saga aside, differences could emerge among bishops _ and with the Vatican _ over whether homosexuals should be absolutely barred from the priesthood and whether to relax the Catholic rule that priests be celibate.

Law is under pressure over his handling of abuse cases _ especially those of two known abusers in the Boston archdiocese who were moved from parish to parish.

The Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, reported that some participants will push the Vatican to ask Law to resign.

The cardinal reportedly said senior prelates had asked him to take the Law case directly to Vatican officials close to Pope John Paul II. He said he and others would do so during private meetings at the Vatican.

No cardinal spoke publicly about a resignation, but the report quickly spread around the Vatican.

McCarrick said he had not heard of an anti-Law push. ``If some felt very strongly, they would speak to him privately. I can't see a cabal.''

Indeed, such private talks, this week and beyond, are the likely venue that will decide Law's fate.

``The trouble began on his watch and he wants to fix it. Give him a chance,'' McCarrick told reporters.

Law declined comment here, merely noting his Sunday remarks in Boston saying the church ``must spark immediate and decisive changes.''

Law made a secret visit to the Vatican and revealed a week ago that he discussed calls for his resignation and was encouraged to stay on.

Boston became the epicenter of the controversy in January, when published reports disclosed that Law and other church leaders had simply reassigned a priest accused of pedophilia.

The aftershocks of these revelations have since been felt in parishes throughout the country as additional reports of abuse have come to light.

The spotlight returned to Boston in recent weeks following new revelations about a priest who was allowed to continue leading local parishes despite his endorsement of sex between men and boys.

The Vatican is leaving public comments to the Americans, who, anxious to show they are seeking to resolve the scandal, plan to brief the media twice a day.

The Vatican will clearly emphasize its positions, including the pope's repeated emphasis on the need to maintain celibacy.

Since revelations began pouring out early this year, the pope's only public reference to the issue came in a pre-Easter letter to priests March 21. He said a ``dark shadow of suspicion'' had been cast over priests ``by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination.''

Scandals have cropped up in other countries in recent years, including Austria, Ireland, France and Australia and the pope's native Poland.