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Clergy abuse victims try to sway pope vote

12 March 2013, 07:31

Washington - As cardinals prepare for the conclave to elect the next pope, the victims of sex abuse by clergymen are trying to ensure the vote doesn't go to anyone they accuse of helping cover up the scandal.

The Catholic hierarchy had a final day of talks in Rome on Monday before going into lockdown in the Sistine Chapel for the vote, after former pontiff Benedict XVI's shock resignation - the first for 700 years.

The endless scandals over sexual abuse by paedophile priests and cover-ups by superiors will be a factor in the debate, and victims' groups have been campaigning in the Vatican and at home to try to make it a deciding one.

"If the church elects a new pope that has a poor record of dealing with abuse, that will be a sign that nothing has changed," said James Salt, director of victims' pressure-group Catholics United.

The group has launched an appeal calling for "all cardinals tarnished by scandal to recuse themselves from upcoming papal conclave," eliminating themselves not just as candidates, but as electors.

23 000 signatures

Members of the US group SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - have travelled to Rome where they have been active ahead of the conclave.

They published a list of their "dirty dozen" - who include some of the top papal contenders, including Canadian Marc Ouellet and Italian Angelo Scola - each marked by what they said were failures to confront the abuse.

A similar group in Mexico has gathered 23 000 signatures against the participation of Cardinal Norberto Rivera.

Rivera has been accused of covering up the actions of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, who was accused of sexually abusing children before he died in 2008.

In Belgium, victims have similarly denounced the participation of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, whom rights groups accuse of keeping silent on predator priests when he headed the country's Catholic Church from 1979 to 2009.

Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno has likewise been recalled.


And Catholics United has urged retired Cardinal Roger Mahony - relieved in January of all church administrative and public duties for mishandling abuse claims against dozens of priests, dating back to the 1980s - to "stay home."

"Many of the cardinals have made comments that have minimized the abuse crisis," said Becky Ianni of SNAP, "with comments such as, 'this happened a long time ago, it's not just a Catholic problem, we are doing a good job, it is just a small percentage of priests'."

"These comments re-victimise us all over again," she said.

In the United States, several polls have shown that a majority of US Catholics believe the next pope should focus on the sex abuse scandal, and many victims said that Benedict didn't do enough.

"Tragically, the worst is almost certainly ahead," SNAP director David Clohessy said in a statement.

He said the truth of "widespread, longstanding and deeply-rooted" abuse and cover ups has "yet to surface in most nations".

Immediate action

In contrast to its "dirty dozen," SNAP has published a list of the three candidates it considers "least worst" - Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn and Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

Ianni argued that the next pope "will need to take action immediately."

"In the past we have seen lots of policies created and lots of apologies made but have witnessed very little real change.

For real change, she said, the next pope "will have to punish those bishops or cardinals that cover up the abuse. The pope will need to open up the Vatican's records on sex abuse."

But Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi underlined that victims' groups and ordinary Catholics don't get a vote.

"It is not up to SNAP to decide who comes to conclave and who is chosen," he said on CNN.

Clohessy, who is in Rome ahead of the conclave, conceded the point.

"We believe, however, in the eyes of many disillusioned or concerned Catholics," the input of victims' advocacy groups is "very much invited and welcomed."

Catholics United's Salt said more bluntly: "The cardinals can either listen to us or they can listen to doors slamming behind former Catholics who are leaving the church."



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