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  • John Thavis

Cardinal Mahony: The conclave’s lightning rod

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.

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