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What’s being called the “Mahony affair” has taken center stage in Italian press coverage of the upcoming conclave, with expressions of outrage that the Los Angeles cardinal accused of covering up sex abuse by priests would come to Rome for the papal election.

Cardinal Roger Mahony announced through his blog that he intends to participate in the conclave, just a few weeks after he was removed from “administrative or public duties” as retired archbishop of Los Angeles because of past failures to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

After a U.S. Catholic lay group urged Mahony to stay home, the popular Italian weekly “Famiglia Cristiana” on Feb. 18 asked online readers whether the cardinal should participate in the conclave. Not surprisingly, the vast majority said no.

One typical comment: “Cardinal Mahony should not only stay home from the conclave but retire to a life of prayer in a monastery.” Another sarcastically suggested that Mahony be allowed to participate only if he could make his way to Rome by swimming and walking, as a form of penitence.

“Revolt Against Cardinal Mahony” was the headline in the Rome daily La Repubblica, which quoted Cardinal Velasio De Paolis as saying Mahony should examine his conscience on the matter.

Most Vatican officials have avoided public comment on Mahony, but privately there is apprehension about what his presence would mean for the conclave. It risks leaving the impression that Mahony has to be hidden away in his home archdiocese, but can fly to Rome and take his seat as a member of the world’s most exclusive club, and help elect the next pope.

Moreover, Mahony is scheduled to make a deposition Feb. 23 regarding a 30-year-old case of abuse, which could raise new legal questions.

Church officials and fellow cardinals, however, are equally concerned at the public campaign being brought to bear. The Vatican spokesman earlier this week warned against a “conclave of the media,” and church leaders in Rome are extremely wary of outside pressure affecting the way the conclave works.

If Mahony is hounded out of the conclave for his mishandling of abuse cases, who might be next? they ask. Several other cardinals who will be voting for the next pope have been criticized by their own faithful for the way they dealt with abuse accusations.

While most of the cardinals’ deliberations in Rome will be private, the papal transition also features a number of public liturgies. One can imagine news cameras focusing on Cardinal Mahony, and microphones continually thrust in front of other cardinals with the question: “Should Mahony be here?”

Vatican officials maintain that Cardinal Mahony has the right to participate in the conclave and that — barring an intervention from Pope Benedict — it’s his call.

Note: Cardinal Bernard Law, who left Boston in disgrace in 2002 in the wake of clerical sex abuse revelations, participated in the conclave of 2005. But he had been out of the United States and, in a sense, off the radar after being given a ceremonial position in Rome in 2004.

When Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who was himself accused of sexual misconduct, relinquished all his privileges as archbishop and cardinal in 1998, it was reportedly with the proviso that he would not participate in a conclave. But the issue never came up, as Groer turned 80 the next year and died in 2003.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Cardinals do not have geographical constituencies. And a conclave is not a political convention.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s acknowledge the deep geographical imbalances in the conclave that will elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. There are 117 cardinals eligible to vote, and it is a group dominated by Europeans and North Americans.

Consider these numbers:

— A full 52 percent of the voting-age cardinals are European, despite the fact that Europe today is home to just 24 percent of the church’s total population, and is the only continent where the actual number of Catholics is in decline.

— Italy alone has 28 voting cardinals in the conclave, or 24 percent — more than Africa, Asia and Australia combined, and eight more voters than the last conclave in 2005.

— About 35 percent of the voters are active or retired members of the Roman Curia, a remarkably high proportion that has significantly increased since the 2005 conclave.

— Latin America, home to 42 percent of the world’s Catholic population, has 19 cardinals among conclave voters, or 16 percent of the total.

In terms of population, the church’s center of gravity long ago moved from Europe to the south and east, and the church’s biggest growth areas are Africa and Asia.

Many would argue that this changing dynamic goes beyond simple numbers — that Catholic communities in developing countries are not only more populous, but also more vibrant, more participatory in the sacraments and more influential in their societies.

Catholic leaders, including popes, have professed to welcome this transformation from a Eurocentric to a more universal church. But it’s a shift that has barely touched the highest levels of church governance.

No wonder the College of Cardinals is increasingly seen as the firewall against change in the church. For all the talk about Catholicism’s global expansion, far-flung church communities have relatively little voice when it comes to choosing and advising a pope.

“The church is not a democracy” is an oft-recited mantra at the Vatican, and no one is seriously suggesting that the College of Cardinals should operate as a kind of representational parliament, or that popes should adhere to geographical quotas when he selects new members.

But early last year, after yet another batch of new cardinals tilted almost exclusively toward Europe and the Roman Curia, whispered criticism was heard inside and outside the Vatican. Some of it appears to have reached Pope Benedict’s ears: when he named six additional cardinals in November, none were European and five were from the developing world.

That hadn’t happened in decades, and the pope told a surprised audience that his selections were meant to demonstrate the church’s universality.

Last Christmas, Pope Benedict pardoned Paolo Gabriele, his former valet who was tried and convicted for leaking confidential documents to the press. The pope’s move seemed like the classic Vatican happy ending to the Vatileaks affair, an act of forgiveness that transcended the revelations of petty conflict in the Roman Curia.

There’s a postscript, however, and it raises some familiar questions about transparency and secrecy at the Vatican.

The Italian magazine Panorama reported earlier this month that when the Vatican assigned Gabriele to a position at the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Hospital, it was on the condition that he refrain from talking to the press. The magazine said Gabriele signed a commitment “not to give interviews or make statements” in exchange for his new job.

The impression left by the Panorama article was that the Vatican’s reconciliation effort was, in effect, a stratagem to buy the silence of a man who might have much more to say.

I spoke with Vatican officials who, not surprisingly, offered a much different take. First, they said Gabriele had not signed such a promise — at least not yet — and had not taken up any new employment position.

Second, they argued that it wouldn’t be so strange if such a promise of silence were eventually asked of Gabriele, or offered by him, in view of the fact that he himself has expressed remorse over leaking the documents and damaging the image of the pope. Gabriele’s “repentance” was a key reason for the pope’s pardon and for the Vatican offer of a new job, and if he was being honest, it would be hard to imagine him now sidelining as a guest on talk shows or writing a tell-all book.

Vatican officials are well aware that Gabriele will receive attractive financial offers to tell his story, if he hasn’t already.

One reason the Vatican would view a “vow of silence” as normal is that all Roman Curia employees are expected to protect the secrecy of their work affairs. The General Regulations of the Roman Curia, in fact, stipulate that employees take an oath promising to maintain secrecy — not just on important “pontifical” matters but on everything handled by their department.

In the Vatican’s view, this is not a “gag order” but simply recognition that employment at the Holy See is not like any other job. As Pope John Paul II wrote when he promulgated his version of the regulations, the Roman Curia has no equivalent in civil society, and requires a sense of communion with the mission of the supreme pontiff.

In theory, Vatican employees are not only supposed to avoid taking documents and notes out of the office, but are forbidden from meeting “outsiders” in the office or even talking to non-authorized personnel about their work without expressed permission from superiors. Fortunately for journalists, most Vatican officials routinely bend those rules.

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