As Catholic cardinals prepare to elect a new pope, the conclave may be overshadowed by a host of contentious issues
When Pope Benedict XVI tendered the first papal resignation in almost 600 years, the more hopeful of his flock said it would help the Roman Catholic church make a break with its recent past and usher in a new era of missionary vibrancy untainted by intrigue and scandal.
The headlines of the past fortnight, however, have shown quite how unlikely that is. Not only has anger built over the role of several compromised cardinals in the choosing of a papal successor, but increasingly lurid claims have emerged about why Benedict chose to stand down in the first place.
A major new controversy, therefore, is the last thing that the Vatican needs. Rather than heralding a bold new dawn, the most unexpected and unpredictable conclave in centuries looks increasingly likely to be overshadowed – just as much of Benedict's papacy was – by scandal.
The clerical sex abuse scandals that dominated Benedict's eight years as pope have left several prelates due to take part in conclave facing questions over how they handled the affairs.
They include Cardinal Justin Rigali, the former archbishop of Philadelphia, who retired in 2011, five months after the archdiocese was stunned by an abuse scandal, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, who last week was questioned over the abuse of children by priests in his former archdiocese of Milwaukee. Lawyers are interested in knowing when Dolan learned of the allegations and when he made them public.
Closer to home, Cardinal Seán Brady, the primate of All Ireland, has come under pressure not to attend conclave next month. The prelate has faced calls to resign over his failure in the 1970s to report the activities of a serial abuser and his apologies have done little to quell the anger. Last week Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre for abuse survivors in Dublin told journalists Brady would express his apology best "by not going to Rome". Her appeal, however, will not be heeded; Brady has confirmed he will take part in conclave as planned.
Amid all these names, there is one in particular that has attracted most anger: the American Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose transgressions have emerged more recently and caused outrage among Catholics in Los Angeles, where he is archbishop emeritus. Last month, a court ordered the release of files relating to over 120 priests accused of child sex abuse which showed that Mahony, along with other officials, had protected the clerics. He was publicly reprimanded by his successor as archbishop of Los Angeles and stripped of his public and administrative duties.
But, in spite of incredulity at the grass roots, he has steadfastly insisted on his right to vote in conclave, claiming he has been "scapegoated" and unfairly disgraced. On Friday night, before he was due to be questioned under oath about a visiting Mexican priest accused of abusing 26 children, he posted a message on Twitter that read: "Just a few short hours before my departure for Rome. Will be tweeting often from Rome, except during the actual Conclave itself. Prayers!" His determination has infuriated Catholics in the US: thousands have signed a petition demanding Mahony recuse himself from the conclave – or, in its words, "stay home!"
It also appears to have caused consternation in the Catholic establishment in Italy, with the influential magazine Famiglia Cristiana running a poll asking readers if the American cardinal should attend or not. The answer was no.
In recent days conclave has not been the only cause of controversy. Benedict's surprise resignation has generated intense speculation over the internal machinations of the Vatican, with the latest report claiming he chose to quit after reading of a network of gay prelates in the church, some of whom were vulnerable to blackmail. According to La Repubblica, the pope decided to resign in December after receiving a report into the so-called Vatileaks affair which claimed that one of many "factions" within the church was a group of priests "united by sexual orientation".
Last week the pope's spokesman Federico Lombardi declined to confirm or deny the claims. But on Saturday he went on the attack against what he said was a rumour mill working overtime to discredit the church.
Writing on the website of Vatican Radio, he condemned the "gossip, misinformation and sometimes slander" that had been swirling in the wake of the announcement.
"Those who consider money, sex and power before all else and are used to reading diverse realities from these perspectives, are unable to see anything else, even in the Church, because they are unable to gaze toward the heights or descend to the depths in order to grasp the spiritual dimensions and reasons of existence," he wrote. "This results in a description of the Church and of many of its members that is profoundly unjust."
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