The sudden resignation of the most senior Catholic cardinal in Britain, who stepped aside Monday in the face of accusations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago, showed that the impact of scandal could force a cardinal out of participating in the selection of a new pope.
His dramatic exit came as at least a dozen other cardinals tarnished with accusations that they failed to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors were among those gathering in Rome to prepare for the conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. There was no sign that the church's promise to grapple with the sexual abuse scandal had led to direct pressure on those cardinals to exempt themselves from the conclave.
Advocates for abuse victims in Rome on Tuesday focused particular ire on Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, and called for him to be excluded from the papal conclave. But Mahony, who has vigorously defended his record, was already in Rome, tweeting about the weather.
Even stalwart defenders of the church point out that to disqualify Mahony would leave dozens more cardinals similarly vulnerable. Many of the men who will go into the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope who they hope will help the church recover from the bruising scandal have themselves been blemished by it.
"Among bishops and cardinals, certainly the old guys who have been involved for so long, sure they're going to have blood on their hands," said Thomas G. Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, who has served on the U.S. bishops' national abuse advisory board and has written three books on sexual abuse.
Among the many challenges facing the church, addressing the wounds caused by clergy sexual abuse is among the top priorities, church analysts say. When Benedict was elected in 2005, many Catholics hoped his previous experience at the helm of the Vatican office that dealt with abuse cases would result in substantive changes.
Benedict has repeatedly apologized to victims and has listened personally to their testimonies of pain.
After the abuse scandal paralyzed the church in Europe in 2010 and began to emerge in other continents, Benedict issued new policies for bishops to follow on handling sexual abuse accusations, and he held a conference at the Vatican on the issue. But despite calls from many Catholics, he never removed prelates who, court cases and documents revealed, put children at risk by failing to report or remove pedophiles from the priesthood.
It is not that these cardinals behaved so differently from the others, or that they do not have achievements to their names. It is that they came from pinpoints on the Catholic world map where long-hidden secrets became public because victims organized, government officials investigated, lawyers sued or the media paid attention.
They include cardinals from Belgium, Chile and Italy. They include the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, who is accused of taking large monetary gifts from a religious order, the Legion of Christ, and halting an investigation into its founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel who was later exposed as a pathological abuser and liar.
They include cardinals reviled by many in their own countries, such as Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of all Ireland, who survived an uproar and repeated calls to resign after government investigations uncovered endemic cover-ups of the sexual and physical abuse of children and minors.
"There's so many of them," said Justice Anne Burke, a judge in Illinois who served on the U.S. bishops' first advisory board more than 10 years ago and has continued to speak and write about the abuse issue. "They all have participated in one way or another in having actual information about criminal conduct, and not doing anything about it. What are you going to do?"
Even one cardinal frequently mentioned as a leading candidate for pope has been accused of turning a blind eye toward abuse victims. Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet issued apologies to victims of abuse in church boarding schools in Quebec province but left behind resentment when he reportedly refused to meet with them.
At a news conference in Rome on Tuesday, David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told reporters that coming to grips with the sexual abuse crisis should be a priority for the next pope.