Can he who has sinned cast a vote for the next pope? Apparently so. But a growing number of the Vatican’s cardinal electors are being questioned over their knowledge of past sex-abuse scandals, calling into question their ethical right to vote in the next conclave.
In less than a week, the majority of the 117-strong College of Cardinals is expected to descend upon Rome to prepare for the conclave in which they will elect a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned February 11. But as the Vatican prepares for the pageantry of the occasion, survivors of the church’s sex scandals and everyday Catholics are raising concerns about whether it is appropriate for certain cardinals to be allowed to dictate the church’s future. “In our view, it’s very safe to assume that almost every one of the prelates who'll pick the pope ... have ignored, concealed, or enabled child sex crimes,” Zach Hiner, a spokesman for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), tells The Daily Beast.
While many cardinals have been stained by the extensive clergy sex scandals, Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles Roger M. Mahony has become a poster priest for the corrupt cardinals of this conclave. Mahony was effectively let go as head of America’s largest diocese in January by his Vatican-endorsed replacement, Archbishop José Gomez, when a California court released 120,000 pages of internal church documents sequestered during investigations of 120 predatory priests in the Los Angeles diocese. The documents show that Mahony was directly involved in moving known pedophiles between parishes in an attempt to conceal their crimes. “I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil,” said Gomez in a statement when he fired his predecessor. More than $600,000 has been paid in lawsuits to victims in the Los Angeles diocese.
This Saturday Mahony will appear in a Los Angeles court to give a deposition in a criminal case involving a Mexican priest who is accused of raping 29 children over just nine months in 1987. The priest is on the lam in Mexico with multiple arrest warrants for child abuse against him, and he has been defrocked in absentia. But Mahony allegedly covered for the priest and obstructed justice when parents of the reported victims complained to the police. He is currently not facing charges, but he will be questioned under oath. Then, according to his Twitter feed, he plans to head to Rome—unless someone stops him. “Countdown to the papal conclave has begun,” he tweeted. “Your prayers needed that we elect the best Pope for today and tomorrow’s church.”
Since Benedict’s resignation, a not-so-subtle storm has been brewing outside Vatican City calling for Mahony to stay in California. Signs have been posted (and quickly removed) along the perimeter walls of Saint Peter’s Square warning that cardinals, like Mahony, who have been embroiled in the sex-abuse scandals are coming to town. Even the ultraconservative Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana, which is distributed for free in many Catholic churches each Sunday, has been weighing in on the topic. The influential magazine conducted an online survey among its faithful readers about whether Mahony should be allowed to participate in the election of the next pope (the overwhelming response was no). They then ran a damning op-ed piece called “Cardinal in Court” in which they called on Catholics to voice their opinions about the case. The American-based group Catholics United has also launched an online petition to urge Mahony to stay home. Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis suggested in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica that perhaps the right approach was if Mahony “could be advised not to take part only through a private intervention by someone with great authority”—which could mean the pope himself. Barbara Blaine of SNAP echoed that sentiment in a statement this week: “We hope that high ranking Vatican officials will instead preclude Mahony from attending the conclave and voting for the new Pope. His sordid record covering up child sex crimes should be considered a stain on the church and unworthy of a papal elector.”
Mahony’s may be the worst case, but he is certainly not the only cardinal elector stained by the church’s American sex-abuse scandals. On Wednesday the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, spent three hours answering questions under oath about pedophile priests under his clerical management during his time as the head of the Milwaukee diocese in Wisconsin from 2002 to 2009. While there, he allegedly used church money to pay “a handful” of predatory priests more than $20,000 to leave the priesthood quietly, a claim he originally denied until bankruptcy documents seemed to indicate that the payments were made.
Dolan, who has not been charged with any crime, will also head to Rome next week to prepare for the conclave. His name has been circulated as a potential pope, though that was before his deposition was made public this week. He is certainly not a favorite among the church abuse victims’ groups. “Dolan has been particularly adept at evading responsibility for his wrongdoing in clergy sex cases, having moved twice since the scandal started gaining international attention more than a decade ago, and having worked, three times, in states with especially archaic child-abuse laws that favor defendants,” says David Clohessy, head of SNAP. “Civil justice can expose predators and their enablers, but only criminal justice can imprison and deter them. So while these depositions represent progress, it's crucial to remember that the best way to prevent and discourage future crimes and cover-ups is for secular authorities to investigate, charge, and convict Catholic officials who hide and enable heinous crimes against kids.”
The question of just who will vote in the conclave could prove pivotal in whether the church will be seen as addressing its dark history of well-documented abuse. If Mahony is somehow dissuaded from attending, many believe that it would send a message that the church is taking a different stance on abuse going forward and that this College of Cardinals will elect a pope who has as clean a record on the issue as possible.