When American cardinals meet behind closed doors with Pope John Paul II next week, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said yesterday, they should adopt a national policy requiring every diocese in the United States to notify civil authorities of any credible allegation of sexual abuse by priests.

McCarrick is one of 11 U.S. cardinals abruptly summoned to Rome to address the widening sex abuse scandal in the United States. It has led to the removal of dozens of priests across the country and a deep crisis of trust in the Roman Catholic hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, who head nearly 200 independent dioceses.

"We have to make sure that we're all on the same page and . . . that every credible allegation gets both to the diocese and . . . to the civil authorities," McCarrick said. "You can suggest, you can cajole. But if a [bishop] really thinks he has it under control in another way, then it's hard to get him to change. But if the Holy Father says, 'I think everybody should do this,' then we all tend to do it."

McCarrick, 71, discussed the scandal and his recommendations for the church's response at a luncheon with editors and reporters of The Washington Post. Few other prelates of his rank have spoken so extensively on the issue to the media.

Noting that he has not yet received an agenda for the Rome meeting, he said the goal of the two-day session "could be whatever the Holy Father wants it to be."

But McCarrick said he believes it is vital for the Catholic Church in America to begin "really tackling this [scandal] in a more comprehensive way" than the fractured response so far from individual dioceses.

Since 1993, the Archdiocese of Washington -- which covers the District and five Maryland counties -- has had a policy of requiring any credible allegation of sex abuse against a clergyman to be reported immediately to civil law enforcement authorities. Such allegations have resulted in the removal of six Washington area priests since 1995.

"In Washington, I think we're on top of it," McCarrick said. "But I think what probably has to be done -- and the Holy Father can do this more effectively than anybody else -- is that everybody has to have a plan, everybody has to have a procedure, everybody has to have a policy."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will make clerical sex abuse the focus of its semi-annual meeting, to be held in June in Dallas. McCarrick said that if the pope, after listening to the U.S. cardinals, decides a national policy is needed, the bishops' conference could be "the instrument" for putting it into place.

McCarrick also said the bishops need to do more to ensure that Catholic seminaries "weed out people who should not become priests" by requiring extensive psychological testing and criminal background checks.

And, he said, "I think we have to somehow make sure that our people know what we're doing, that the people know that the bishops are taking this seriously." To that end, he said, he favors declaring a "national day of prayer and reparations" for Catholics in the United States, possibly on the Feast of the Sacred Heart at the end of June.

The Archdiocese of Boston, where the scandal began in January with Cardinal Bernard F. Law's admission that he had quietly moved a pedophile priest among parishes, has agreed to pay more than $30 million to settle victims' lawsuits. A few other dioceses have been nearly bankrupted by similar lawsuits. Plaintiffs' lawyers estimate that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has spent roughly a billion dollars on settlements, most of them under confidentiality agreements barring public disclosure of the amounts paid.

McCarrick said he thought the cardinals would "certainly" discuss the possibility of a full accounting by U.S. dioceses of how many priests have been removed for sexually abusing children and how much money has been paid out in secret settlements.

Pressed for his opinion on full financial accounting, McCarrick replied, "I'd have to think about it more. I don't want to weasel out of the reply, but I think I can see many advantages in total sunshine. And there may be disadvantages I don't see, but let me study that. And when it comes to the meeting, I will hope to be on the right side."

McCarrick declined to say whether he thinks Law should heed mounting calls to resign. In Boston yesterday, Law said he raised the issue in recent meetings with the pope, but returned home "encouraged" to continue in his position.

McCarrick said Law "certainly appreciates the mistakes that were made" but wants to stay on to straighten out the church's difficult situation in Boston. "I admire his strength of character," he said. "I'd be a wreck if I'd gone through that."

While acknowledging many practical problems in the church, McCarrick said he does not believe that the scandal has revealed fundamental flaws in its religious doctrines or administrative principles. Celibacy, he said, has nothing to do with pedophilia. And, he maintained, fewer than 2 percent of all priests have been accused of sex offenses -- a figure that some researchers dispute.

The cardinal said some newspapers have had "a heyday" with the scandal, adding that he thought there were "elements in our society who are very opposed to the church's stand on life, the church's stand on family, the church's stand on education, and they see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the church. And they're really working on it -- and somewhat successfully."

He also revealed that he personally had once faced an unfounded accusation.

More than 10 years ago, while he was bishop of Newark, McCarrick said, he was accused of pedophilia "with my own family" in a letter sent to some of his peers in the church hierarchy.

"I immediately did two things," he said. "I wrote a response and sent it to the nuncio [the pope's representative in the United States] because I figure everything's gotta be clear. And then I brought it to my Presbyter Council, the council of priests in the diocese. I said, 'This is what I got. I want you to know it.' Because I think light is what kills these things. You gotta put them in light. And then nothing ever happened. He never wrote another letter or anything."

McCarrick's spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said later that the unsigned letter implied that he had sexually abused his nieces and nephews but it had "no specific allegations, no names, no nothing . . . just rumor."

After telling this story, the cardinal added, "If there's any interest with anyone here, I can say I'm 71 years old and I have never had sexual relations with anybody -- man, woman or child. And that can go on the record."

Asked what he thought might be the long-term impact of the scandal on the church, McCarrick predicted that it would "cause a greater openness on the part of all of us, and that has to be good, because the church is supposed to be a family and you can't have a family if only half the people know what you're doing. The sunshine should come in."

Church leaders, he added, "will have to be . . . more open in our financial dealings, more open in our personnel practices, more open in how we train our seminarians . . . I think people are going to look [more closely] now, and they have a right to."

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick will be among 11 U.S. cardinals going to Rome.Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said that since 1995, six priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who were accused of sex abuse have been removed from duty.