Dirty Dozen

Can the Cardinals Find a Clean Pope?

Victims of sexual abuse by priests have made their case against a “dirty dozen” of contenders for the job. By Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Gregorio Borgia/AP

“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart…” says the Bible. But as the College of Cardinals gets closer to choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who retired on February 28, it is becoming an increasingly daunting task to find anyone who passes the smell test.

This week, as the cardinals descended on Rome for pre-conclave congregational meetings to share concerns for the global church and form a profile of what they want in a new pontiff, another group of concerned Catholics held court of their own to voice the concerns of victims of predator priests. SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), the 12,000-member strong priest abuse victims’ group, issued its “dirty dozen” of potential popes who they feel would be “the worst papal candidates for the safety of children” and gave their blessing to three others who they feel are “the least of the bad” who could lead their church out of its darkest hour. They also presented a wish list for what they believe the church should do going forward, which includes “to severely and clearly discipline, demote, denounce and defrock bishops caught concealing sex-abuse crimes.” They would also like the church to order bishops in local dioceses to “turn over every piece of paper relating to accusations of abuse,” which they believe would stop predators in their tracks.

The list of “nay” contenders, which includes three American cardinals, was vetted based primarily on the prelates’ documented actions in the cover-up of the child-sex-abuse scandal. According to SNAP Executive Director David Clohessy, Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, tops the list for his controversial move to pay predatory priests $20,000 to leave the ministry when he was archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. A dozen priests took the offer, according to documents released when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy. Dolan has dismissed the group as scurrilous, first denying the payouts and then stepping back after bankruptcy documents filed by the diocese of Milwaukee proved otherwise. “SNAP has no credibility whatsoever,” Dolan said last summer when allegations of the payout first surfaced.

SNAP’s dirty dozen also includes names that are topping the “papabili,” or most likely candidates for the papacy, like Italy’s Angelo Scola, who makes the list thanks to a 2010 homily he delivered in St. Peter’s Basilica in which he “shifted blame and minimized church wrongdoing” on abuse. George Pell of Australia was included for calling media coverage of the child-sex-abuse scandal “smears,” and Marc Oullet of Canada charted for refusing to meet with sex-abuse victims. Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico earned the dubious recognition for once claiming there were no documented cases of abuse against minors in his country despite allegations that he harbored predatory priests like Nicholas Aguilar Rivera, who left the Los Angeles diocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony when he was accused of abusing Mexican children. (Mahony is not on the list because he is not seen as a top contender.) Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, another front runner on many lists, is named because of his adamant opposition to bishops alerting civil authorities about abuse. “I would be willing to go to jail before harming one of my priests,” he once said, according to SNAP. “I am not a policeman.”

SNAP also singled out Sean O’Malley of Boston, whose alleged list of offenses includes a reluctance to post names of offending priests on his website. Leonardo Sandri of Argentina was included because he supported the controversial Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Marciel, who admitted to fathering several children with different women and to molesting seminarians. The last of the 12 scorned cardinals is papabili favorite Peter Turkson of Ghana, who said there were scant child-molesting cases in Africa because “we don’t tolerate gay people.”

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi quickly dismissed SNAP’s dirty-dozen list as irrelevant to what’s going on as the cardinals meet to decide Benedict’s successor. “It’s not up to SNAP to decide who participates in the conclave and who they choose,” he said at a press briefing earlier this week. Still, the leaders of SNAP also offered up three potential prelates who they say are “the best of the worst” to lead the church. Their favorite is Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines, a name that many Vatican insiders have also been mentioning. Tagle has spoken out on the “culture of shame” inside the Catholic church and even commended the media for investigative work uncovering the scandal. “The church must stop waiting for a bomb,” he said at a symposium on child abuse in the Catholic church last year, arguing that the church should focus on prevention rather than reaction.

SNAP also gives a nod to Austrian prelate Christoph Schonborn, another name that has been mentioned by several Vatican experts as a potential pope. Schonborn was disciplined by the Vatican in 2010 for speaking out about the Roman Curia’s handling of abuse, which has won him a badge of honor with victims. But the group had to go outside the College of Cardinals to find a third candidate they approved of, naming Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, an outspoken prelate who has been a trailblazer on abuse in the Irish church for his condemnation of the cover-up. Even though he is not a cardinal, he could still be pope.

“Any man can become the pope,” Father Thomas Reese, analyst for the National Catholic Reporter told The Daily Beast. “As long as they are willing to be ordained a priest, become a cardinal, and then be pope. The only real stipulation is that it cannot be a woman.”

Of course, the victims of church crimes have no vote in the conclave and no real bearing whatsoever on what happens inside the Sistine Chapel when the cardinals go into the conclave. They also admit to being what Clohessy calls a “one-issue group” in their battle against priestly sex abuse. But their membership, which includes 12,000 victims and family members, want the cardinals to remember the tormented stories of those abused by priests when they make their decision. No one knows the sordid details of the child-abuse scandal better than Clohessy. He and his three siblings were molested by their priest in St. Louis for years when they were growing up. One of his brothers went on to become a priest who Clohessy says then molested young children in his parish.

“It still hurts, even 30 years later,” Clohessy said, tears streaming down his face, as he announced SNAP’s list of acceptable candidates for the papacy. “There is nothing we can do to make them listen except to keep talking.”