In the center of a press frenzy befitting the arrival of Madonna, they were swarmed by paparazzi the moment they deplaned at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on April 22. But for two days afterward, a group of 12 U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals remained largely secreted deep in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Within the frescoed walls of the Bologna Room, they searched for a way to defuse the worst child sex-abuse scandal in church history.

At the start of this extraordinary summit—unprecedented in modern times—the 81-year-old Pontiff himself set a tone of high gravity, reading from a statement that called the abuses both "a crime" and "an appalling sin in the eyes of God." There will be no written transcript of the sessions, official or otherwise. But Los Angeles's Cardinal Roger Mahony, for one, urged his fellow clerics to become true leaders. "We all have a great responsibility in seeing this crisis resolved," he said. "We have to make sure that our children...are safe in church."