Pope conclave tainted by abuse scandal: Our view

(USA Today) In Rome, where 115 cardinals are gathering to elect a new pope, the conclave will include these luminaries:

  • Cardinal Roger Mahony, former archbishop of Los Angeles, who in the 1980s plotted with an adviser to conceal child molesting priests from law enforcement.
  • Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland’s church, who failed in the 1970s to follow up on incriminating evidence against a priest, who went on to become a notorious serial molester.
  • Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the former head of the Belgian church, who once advised an adult victim of 13 years of childhood abuse against making “a lot of noise” about it because his molester, a bishop, was about to retire.
  • Cardinal Justin Rigali, former head of the Philadelphia archdiocese, where it took two grand juries issuing scathing reports of abuse before the cardinal saw fit in 2011 to suspend 21 priests accused of molesting children.

The full list of cardinals who abetted the child abuse scandal that has dogged the church for more than a decade is longer. But for coverups and allowing abuse to flourish, these four are among the worst offenders.

Their absence from the conclave could signal that the church is finally ready to reclaim its moral authority. Instead, the four are heading for the conclave, apparently ready to indulge their self-interest at the expense of the church.

Under church law, no one can force these cardinals to forgo voting, but they should.

It is impossible to overstate the breadth and depth of the child molestation scandal, or the damage done to both the children and the credibility of the church. In the U.S. alone, more than 16,000 victims have reported abuse. Similar scandals have roiled Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium and Benedict XVI’s own Germany, each revealing thousands more victims.

The details in each country are as horrifying as they are familiar. Hundreds of priests abused and raped children. Reports of abuse were ignored. Victims were sometimes muzzled. Predator priests were shuffled off to other parishes to molest again. And the highest church leaders often fought to keep the details secret.

Not once in all the years of scandal has a single U.S. bishop, let alone a cardinal, been defrocked. Mahony was publicly rebuked, but he retains his robes and his vote. Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided over perhaps the longest-running and worst abuse cases as head of the Boston archdiocese, resigned as archbishop under pressure from priests and congregants, but he was then given a plush sinecure in the Vatican, where among other things, he helps pick new bishops. Law is ineligible to vote because of age.

The election of a new pope is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the church to cleanse itself — to remove those responsible for so much suffering and take steps to ensure that it won’t happen again. The new pope will also have to confront financial scandals at the Vatican bank, where allegations of money laundering have been under investigation for years. Yet among those who will elect him are cardinals sure to oppose any candidate who would take such steps.

By participating, they taint the sanctity of the process and the holiness of the office.

Benedict himself has shown the way. By becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign, he demonstrated humility and wisdom, conceding that he is no longer the best man for the job. A number of cardinals would honor him and their religion by following his lead.