To call the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church the elephant in the room ahead of the conclave to choose the next pope is to not do justice to the enormity of the problem the institution still faces, and will likely face for years to come.
Addressing the problem directly, abuse victims and their advocates in four countries so far have begun naming various cardinals they believe should either be removed from papal consideration, or even from the very process to name the next pontiff, due to their actions around the scandal. Some of the names they have singled out are considered front-runners by Vatican observers.
"It is difficult. Who would be a good pope? I don't know," said Becky Ianni, Washington, D.C. and Virginia director for the advocacy group SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priests. "It's really hard to say."
SNAP has singled out a "Dirty Dozen" cardinals who are contenders for pope that they consider "to be the worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption."
The members of the "Dirty Dozen" cardinals, according to SNAP, are: Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras), Norberto Rivera (Mexico), Marc Ouellet (Canada), Peter Turkson (Ghana), George Pell (Australia), Tarcisio Bertone (Italy), Angelo Scola (Italy), Leonardo Sandri (Argentina), Dominik Duka (Czech Republic), Sean O'Malley (United States), Timothy Dolan (United States), and Donald Wuerl (United States).
Of those, Vatican magazine senior editor and CBS News contributor Delia Gallagher identified Dolan, Maradiga, O'Malley, Ouellet, Sandri, Scola, Turkson, and Carrera as legitimate contenders to be the next pope.
Victims in Mexico also singled out Cardinal Rivera, who is among SNAP's "Dirty Dozen." In a change.org petition, they wrote directly to Rivera, saying "covering up and not acting to prevent sexual abuses of children by pedophile priests strips you of the moral stature required to participate in the election of the new leader of the Catholic Church." So far, they have received nearly 19,000 signatures.
Beyond those who are in contention for becoming pope, many say abuse-tainted cardinals shouldn't even vote in the conclave.
Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno is among the many who advocates say should not participate in choosing the next pope. He is singled out for "complete and utter failure to act against pedophile priests ... in which he allowed (them) to act like wolves in a flock of sheep," according to a Google translation of the change.org petition calling for him to drop out of the conclave. So far the petition on Calcagno has received nearly 3,000 signatures.
Victims in Chile said recently said Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz failed to act on accusations that they were abused by one of the country's most popular priests, even refusing to meet them in person, reports the Associated Press.
One cardinalas someone who shouldn't vote for the next pope is the disgraced former Archbishop of Los Angeles Roger Mahony, who was stripped of all his public duties after thousands of pages of evidence were released as part of a lawsuit against the church showing he participated in a bold cover up of priest sex abuse in his diocese. Victims' groups are outraged that he has not publicly wavered over his determination to participate in the conclave.
In addition to Calcagno and Mahony, SNAP has singled out another dozen or so cardinals who are unlikely contenders they believe are too tainted by scandal to participate in the conclave.
So far, the only scandal-tainted cardinal to drop out of the conclave is Keith O'Brien of the U.K., who was accused of "inappropriate contact" with fellow priests. He recently admitted his "sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal," and promised to take no longer take part in the "public life" of the Catholic Church.
For his part, U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- one of SNAP's "Dirty Dozen" -- claims the U.S. church at least is on the "right track" when it comes to dealing with sex abuse.
CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey at the Vatican ahead of the conclave, Dolan acknowledged the "torture the Catholics went through in the United States."
Dolan, however, stands accused of acting improperly when he was Archbishop of Milwaukee. The New York Times reports there is documentation that he "authorized payments of as much as $20,000 to sexually abusive priests as an incentive for them to agree to dismissal from the priesthood," while not reporting any abusive priests to law enforcement. In response to that accusation and others that he failed to act on the abuse of parishioners, Dolan called them "false, preposterous and unjust."
Whatever the truth, Dolan claimed in a recentthat "there's no cardinal with his head in the sand when it comes to these issues."
Some are predicting that the discussions over how to handle these issues are likely to lengthen the selection process for the next pope, a claim Dolan seemed to agree with.
"Sexual immorality, perversion, abuse of children, (the things) that affects all elements of society and culture, are particularly hideous when it comes to the Church," Dolan said. "And that that will be an issue? I predict it will."
The Vatican itself has been very touchy about calls for abuse-tainted cardinals to drop out of the papal selection process. When calls for Cardinal Mahony to withdrawal first went up, Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the Vatican Library, told reporters on Feb. 20 that all eligible members of the College of Cardinals are required to attend and participate in the papal conclave. (Canonical law scholars have since pointed out this is not necessarily true.)
In response to SNAP's "Dirty Dozen" list, Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reports on Wednesday they are "well aware" of the accusations, but that it is not up to advocacy groups to determine "who should participate or not in the conclave."
Victims' groups have recently begun pointing out that most of the abuse allegations and trials and revelations have come from Europe and the Americas, where the legal, media, and investigative systems are more robust than places like Africa and Asia, which nonetheless have a huge and old Catholic population. All this is to say the sex abuse scandal may yet be found to have an even more global reach than is currently known.
"It doesn't help when one of the cardinals from Africa says: 'We don't have that problem here because we don't have homosexuality,'" Ianni said, referring to Cardinal Turkson, a strong papal contender.
Ianni, herself a priest abuse victim, says she and many other survivors hold out little hope for a positive outcome from the conclave, regardless of who participates.
"Is getting a new pope really gonna make a new difference?" Ianni asked. "The last two didn't. I don't have a lot of hope that a new pope is gonna change things dramatically. Whatever pope they pick, he has to take decisive action in the first few weeks for victims to know something's gonna change. Benedict was great for apologizing, but nothing changed."