by @Doug88888 via flickr

by @Doug88888 via flickr

Who’s going to be the next pope? We know, more or less, who the cardinals are most likely to pick once the conclave gets rolling tomorrow. But there’s another question that should be asked as we watch the Vatican for white smoke: who do lay Catholics and victims of sexual abuse by the church want for pope?

There’s more than one way to dissect a papal election process of course, but as the sex abuse scandal still rightly casts a deep shadow over the church, there are two ways the new pope might try to “fix” the church: with a revised papal media presence, and with systematic reform in church leadership. According to at least some advocates, the cardinals are paying way too much attention to the former, and sweeping reform under the rug.

An advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse named their “Dirty Dozen” of leading contenders last week. The list of papabiles names cardinals deemed unfit for the job because of their ties to the sex abuse scandal and has a fair amount of overlap with others in circulation, including one I compiled this week for Slate.

SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)’s executive director, David Clohessy, told me via email that some of the cardinals on the list might surprise Catholics, as they’re widely promoted as “reformers” in the church.  Take, for example, Cardinal O’Malley of the United States, who has listed addressing the abuse scandal among his priorities for the next pope. But O’Malley, who is considered a “reformer” on the issue by some  (including some survivors) for his “zero tolerance” stance towards  child abuse in the Catholic church, has also shown “stunning” leniency toward some abusers under his watch. Many extant examples of church “reform” don’t actually address the problem, SNAP says. Clohessy says that the abuse within the church has gone on for centuries, adding, “It’s going on now. And it won’t be reversed in a few years. Because of this, SNAP advocates for victims to report abuse to “secular” authorities, indicating their lack of faith in the church’s current ability to address abuse cases internally.

Here are SNAP’s “Dirty Dozen”:

Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Norberto Rivera of Mexico, Marc Ouellet of Canada, Peter Turkson of Ghana, George Pell of Australia, Tarcisio Bertone of Italy, Angelo Scola of Italy, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Dominik Duka of the Czech Republic, Sean O’Malley of the United States, Timothy Dolan of the United States, and Donald Wuerl of the United States.

SNAP has also said they’re rejecting all “Curia” candidates for the papacy, which essentially means anyone who works in administration at the Vatican. Unsurprisingly, their list of more acceptable candidates is quite short. The group released a companion list of the “least worst” candidates for pope on Thursday.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Phillipines and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria have shown up on other papibile lists.  A third candidate on the list is an outsider because he’s not a cardinal.  Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Ireland is not without popular support although his outspoken advocacy for church reform in the face of the abuse scandal probably hasn’t endeared him to the Vatican.

SNAP has detailed the criteria for their “dirty dozen” selections on their site. Cardinals made the list for actions and words seen as harmful to victims or for impeding efforts for meaningful church reform. As I flagged previously, multiple candidates for pope have at least partially blamed child abuse on homosexuality (as has the church-commissioned John Jay Report on “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests.”)

Some American cardinals, like Timothy Dolan, have been deposed and questioned on their knowledge of sex abuse scandals in their current or former diocese. While SNAP has so far been the most outspoken group on the sex abuse scandal since Benedict XVI’s resignation, CBS News notes that a number of victim advocacy groups around the world have released similar statements criticizing candidates and 115 cardinals voting in the papal elections. But the effect of the abuse scandal on cardinal participation in the conclave has been minimal: Only Cardinal Kieth O’Brien has recused himself, after stepping down as Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh last week.

So what does the Vatican think of SNAP’s list? Well. According to the National Catholic Reporter, when Thomas Rosica, English-language spokesperson for the Vatican, was questioned about the “dirty dozen” at a press briefing on Wednesday, he told reporters, “We are well aware of the positions of SNAP… but it really isn’t up to SNAP to determine who should participate or not in the conclave.”

The tension between the Vatican leadership and advocacy groups like SNAP is worth noting; it highlights the combative way the Vatican has treated the scandal all along. But it didn’t have to be this way…at least once the abuse and cover-up was finally made public. While the Vatican and conservative Catholic groups like the Catholic League have been dismissive or even hostile toward SNAP, American Catholics are unhappy with the church’s handling of the sex abuse scandal. According to Pew, just 33% of Catholics in the US think Benedict XVI did an “excellent or good” job responding to abuse. And in a follow-up survey, 34% of American Catholics thought the sex abuse scandal was the most important issue facing the church as it elects a new pope.  The juxtaposition of  significant concern on the issue in the laity with the Vatican’s seemingly eternal hope that the scandal will fade from the public eye without deeper reform reflects a precarious disconnect that serves no one well.

Despite the papal election’s singular ability to drive media attention to the problems facing church leadership, Clohessy cautioned Catholics and observers to “avoid the tempting assumption that somehow, magically, the next pope will do more to safeguard kids. “No one man caused this crisis,” he said, “No one man, not even a pope, can quickly fix it.”


Abby Ohlheiser writes for Slate’s newsblog, The Slatest. Her work has appeared in The New Humanist, Slate, The Revealer, Religion & Politics, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Also on the conclave, by Abby Ohlheiser:

“Secret Ballot For New Pope will Begin Tuesday,” March 8, 2013, Slate

“Who Will Be the Next Pope? Probably One of These Guys,” March 5, 2013, Slate

“The Cardinals Spent Most of Their Pre-Conclave meeting Taking an Oath of Secrecy,” March 4, 2013