ROME -- A senior Vatican official called Cardinal Roger Mahony's participation in the selection of the next pope "troubling," but said there was no formal procedure to stop the retired Los Angeles archbishop from attending the conclave next month.
The remarks by Cardinal Velasio De Paolis added to a growing murmur about the propriety of Mahony's decision to attend the conclave. Mahony recently was rebuked by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, for his handling of sexual abuse cases, although Gomez also has expressed support for Mahony's role in the papal conclave. But several Vatican officials have appeared to raise questions about it, without actually saying that Mahony should not take part.
As a cardinal younger than 80, Mahony is entitled to vote for the man who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who recently announced his retirement.
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In other realms, the comments by De Paolis might be considered innocuous, but the meaning of comments from the Vatican is often found between the lines.
In an interview with the daily La Repubblica, De Paolis, the former head of the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs and the man tasked with reforming the disgraced Legionaries of Christ, said “it will be up to [Mahony’s] conscience to decide whether to take part or not.”
“Cardinal Mahony has the right and duty to take part,” he said. “This is a troubling situation but the rules must be followed.”
Asked for Mahony’s response to that and other comments about his attendance, an archdiocesan spokesman in Los Angeles wrote in an email, “Cardinal Mahony is attending the conclave, which is the sacred duty of every cardinal under the church's Canon Law.”
But Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, who worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said Tuesday that “if his presence creates difficulties or embarrassment, then I think it could be opportune to renounce.”
Still, he said, “the decision is up to him and his conscience.”
Another bishop, Charles Scicluna of Malta, said he expected Mahony to attend the conclave. But in an interview with the U.S.-based National Catholic Register, he also was less than effusive about Mahony's attendance.
"In any case he'll decide in conscience what to do. It's not an easy situation for him," said Scicluna, who was the Vatican's top prosecutor on child sex abuse cases for a decade.
On social media, Mahony has given no sign of ambivalence about going to Rome. He wrote Monday on Twitter, “Count-down to the Papal Conclave has begun. Your prayers needed that we elect the best Pope for today and tomorrow’s church.”
On his personal blog, Mahony described the “incredible” experience of participating in the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict. On Wednesday morning, he directed readers to a speech about the sex scandal by a Texas priest, Ronald Rolheiser, and noted that it called for “the acceptance of being scapegoated.”
Before he leaves for Rome, Mahony will answer questions under oath for four hours about his handling of sex abuse cases. The deposition set for Saturday is part of a lawsuit brought by a man who says he was molested by a visiting Mexican priest in the late 1980s.
This much is clear: Mahony would not attend the conclave if he was going to follow the advice of readers of Famiglia Cristiana, Italy’s best-selling magazine, which posed the question on its website: "Mahony – Yes or No at the Conclave?" The query provoked hundreds of responses, the vast majority of which were negative.
“How squalid this church is!” wrote Elena K. “What sadness! All we lacked was the arrogance and insolence of Cardinal Mahony!”
Another reader, roberto78, wrote: “The Church should give a strong signal by not letting him participate. We need to have the strength to change traditions. With his resignation the pope has shown he can take that leap for the good of the church, now others should be as courageous.”
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