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Tough vetting ahead for any future pope

The sex abuse crisis engulfing the Catholic Church will mean more vigorous background checks when it comes to appointing cardinals, and future popes.
Benedict XVI, Georg Gaenswein
Pope Benedict XVI flanked by personal secretary Georg Gaenswein delivers his blessing during the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)PIER PAOLO CITO / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The sex abuse crisis engulfing the Catholic Church will mean more vigorous background checks when it comes to appointing cardinals, and future popes. Among the requirements: no taint of scandal and the ability to speak comfortably to the world and the media.

While leading Catholic conservatives have vigorously defended Benedict XVI from accusations that he was complicit in covering up sex abusers, they have also pointed to management failures.

As a model for the future pope, the church will need to consider someone "able to talk to the world and the media, not be destroyed by it," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Even as the clerical sex abuse crisis has swept across Europe in recent months — touching even Benedict — the Vatican has responded with the disarray and media ineptitude that's been symptomatic of the German-born pope's five-year papacy.

The church was rocked by scandal again Wednesday, when Norwegian officials revealed that a 58-year-old Catholic bishop who resigned last year did so after admitting he molested a child two decades earlier.

Even supporters see need for change
As churchmen have closed ranks to defend Benedict, even some of his biggest supporters have pointed to the need for change.

Leading Catholic conservatives such as George Weigel in the United States and Vittorio Messori in Italy have vigorously defended Benedict from accusations he was involved in covering up sex abusers while serving as archbishop of Munich and later as a Vatican official. But they have both underlined management shortcomings in the papacy, with the Italian noting a "certain naivete."

One test will come when the pope names new cardinals, with Vatican insiders suggesting this will happen in November.

The Holy See will need to carry out a vigorous vetting process to try to ensure that none of the new cardinals are tainted by the sex abuse scandal — a potentially monumental task considering the scope of the crisis.

The number of cardinals under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave for a new pope — a cardinal's principal responsibility — now stands at 108 and will dip to 101 by November from a possible total of 120.

Such traditional cardinal seats as New York, Washington, Florence and Prague will be in line for new red hats. It is up to the pope to decide exactly how many new cardinals are named.

Eyes on Dublin
One archdiocese to watch is Dublin, where Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has won praise for seeking to root out those responsible for decades of child abuse in Ireland.

In 2007, he was passed over for cardinal in favor of Sean Brady in the northern seat of Armagh. Brady, though, has recently faced calls for his resignation following revelations that he participated in interviews with two victims of a pedophile priest but did not notify police.

After Pope John Paul II's 27-year papacy, Benedict was elected for what was widely considered a "transition" papacy. He was considered a known quantity who on sex abuse had just condemned "filth" in the church, had cracked down on abusive priests — and was therefore considered to have an exemplary record.

Now questions have been raised about his handling of abusive priests while he was archbishop of Munich and head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His supporters say he did nothing wrong.

Authoritative accounts from the secret conclave indicated there was opposition to Benedict, although in the current crisis no cardinal has stepped forth and expressed regrets over the choice.

When the search begins for a successor to Benedict, Vatican experts say the need for someone with no skeletons in the closet on abuse might give advantage to cardinals who didn't head a diocese.

In choosing top officials, the church may give preference to a younger generation of conservative clergy, looking beyond the current church leadership that has been so sullied by the scandal. Just this week, Benedict tapped a 58-year-old Mexican-born prelate, Jose Gomez, as the next archbishop of Los Angeles, a post that traditionally gets a red hat.

As a priest, Gomez was a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement favored by the Vatican. He takes over in February from current archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was dogged by the abuse scandal, agreeing in 2007 to a record-setting $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged victims.

Gomez himself was criticized Tuesday by victim support groups who accuse him of being unresponsive to their concerns about several clergy abuse cases. Church officials have said appropriate actions were taken against the priests.

Lost in the drumbeat of accusations and the Vatican's counterattack have been indications that change is indeed being placed on the agenda for a future pope.

Last month, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper, gave space to an Italian woman, historian Lucetta Scaraffia, who argued that a greater feminine presence in the church "would have been able to rip the veil off the code of silence" on clerical sex abuse.

An influential European cardinal, Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, recently said there is need for "dialogue" about priestly celibacy, but stopped short of saying it should be lifted and did not make a direct link to sex abuse, which the Vatican rejects.

The idea that Benedict might step down over the crisis has been roundly dismissed as speculation raised only by those bent on destroying his papacy.

Still, Benedict himself seemed to consider the possibility that popes might not serve unlimited terms. With people living longer "one also would consider new norms," he said in a 2004 interview with an Italian religious affairs magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, a year before his election.