THE Pope issued his strongest statement yet on the issue of paedophile priests yesterday, warning that the Roman Catholic Church would not tolerate them or this ''appalling sin in the eyes of God''.

He told American cardinals, summoned to the Vatican to discuss their handling of a series of a child abuse scandals, that sex abuse by priests ''was rightly considered a crime by society''.

It was the Pope's first words of solidarity with the victims since allegations began pouring out from the US in January.

The American church delegation said the issue of a possible resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, once spoken of as the next Pope but now accused of mishandling sex abuse cases, was not discussed at the meeting. Cardinal Law, who was at the meetings, has acknowledged transferring a priest to another parish, despite knowing he had been accused of sexual misconduct.

In all, 400 complaints have been lodged against priests in

the Boston diocese. Allegations have also been made in 16 other areas.

The Pope ordered the American cardinals to the Vatican after it became clear the growing scandal was causing a crisis of confidence among the US faithful.

''The church herself is viewed with distrust,'' the Pope said, in a private address later released to journalists.

''The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God.''

While in the past the church has been accused of sheltering priests accused of abuse, the Pope's remarks appeared to indicate that it would not stand in the way of investigations.

Since the revelations began, the Pope's only previous public reference to the issue came in a pre-Easter letter to priests. He said a ''dark shadow of suspicion'' had been cast over priests ''by some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination''.

The American scandal follows similar ones in Austria, Ireland, France, Australia and the Pope's native Poland.

During a series of meetings, the 12 cardinals and two bishops are to discuss with leading Vatican officials a practical action plan for preventing future scandals.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the Pope had made his position clear.

''It's the strongest language I've seen about what we call at home 'zero tolerance','' he said.

The two-day conference, will also address the issue of whether homosexuals should be excluded from the priesthood, as suggested recently by the Pope's spokesman.

The meeting opened a day after a report that there were moves by fellow cardinals to force the resignation of Cardinal Law. However Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, said the question of Cardinal Law's resignation was not raised. But he said Cardinal Law told the group that, ''if he hadn't made some terrible mistakes, we probably all wouldn't be here''.

Cardinal Law said last week that he would not resign, following a secret meeting with the Pope and Vatican officials in Rome.

In his remarks yesterday, the Pope said: ''I ask Catholics to stay close to their priests and bishops and support them with their prayers at this difficult time.''