Abuse scandal means tough vetting of future pontiffs

Vatican » Background will require no taint of scandal and ability to speak comfortably.
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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, the Vatican has responded with the disarray and media ineptitude that's been symptomatic of the German-born pope's five-year papacy.

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 is 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.

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.

Bishop in Norway admits to abuse

A Catholic bishop in Norway who resigned last year did so after admitting he had molested a child about 20 years earlier, when he was a priest, church officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came after a Norwegian newspaper pressed for an explanation for why Georg Mueller, a 58-year-old German, had stepped down unexpectedly as bishop in the western city of Trondheim in June 2009. At the time, Vatican and Norwegian church officials gave only vague reasons for Mueller's departure.

It was the first case in the current wave of sexual abuse allegations -- and accusations of cover-ups -- against Catholic clergy in which a bishop stepped down after admitting to having molested minors.