After a decade, the U.S. church has the tightest controls in the world on whom it allows to work with children. They include education programs in parishes, background checks and a policy of removing any priest with substantiated claims against him.
“Americans have by far done more than any other church or religious group or any group in the world. . . . Americans have experience at this, ” said the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a Wisconsin priest who writes a popular Catholic blog.
The cardinal seen as having the most experience on the issue of clergy sexual abuse is O’Malley. Reporters who cover the Vatican have also focused on his image as a friar of the Capuchin order — rather than a priest based in a diocese — who wears a robe and sandals and took a vow of poverty. When he moved to the scandal-wracked Boston archdiocese in 2003, much was made of the fact that he sold the ornate, high-on-a-hill cardinal’s residence to pay survivors of sex abuse.
“If you go see him, you get a tuna salad sandwich,” said Winters, a reference to the event O’Malley held on a seminary lawn when he was installed in Boston. Bostonians noticed the contrast with the more upmarket previous installation parties.
In a profile a few days ago in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, prominent Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli noted that O’Malley never did a stint in Rome.
“O’Malley is an outsider, a surprise candidate whom electors could pick if there is a vote gridlock,” wrote Tornielli, adding that if he is picked, he’ll be the first pope with a beard “since Innocence XII who died 213 years ago.”
O’Malley has a PhD in Spanish literature, and when he was based in Washington in the 1970s, he founded a Spanish-language bookstore and newspaper. He’s seen as strictly orthodox — he started seminary training when he was 13 — with a “sensitive soul,” wrote John Allen, another prominent Vatican reporter. Allen quoted a letter O’Malley sent to Boston Catholics in 2004 amid parish closings and continued fallout from the abuse scandal: “At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job.”
But to others, the sex-abuse scandals here would be viewed as a strike against the notion of a U.S. cardinal as pope.
Soledad Loaeza, an expert on church-state relations in Mexico, says Mexicans are suspicious of U.S. power and would remember the sex-abuse scandal for its failures.
“Mexicans would focus on the problem rather than the solution,” Loaeza said of one of the world’s largest Catholic populations. “Having an American pope would create problems for Latin Americans.”
Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the sensitivities surrounding American power are still too raw and don’t provide enough benefit to a church trying to attract people to its message.
“While an American pope could act on his convictions, there’s an awkwardness. It’s a strain for everyone, and it’s just as well that it not happen,” he said. “I don’t think any American has a chance.”
For some close to the church, it’s also hard to visualize the merger of a messy democracy that puts its presidents on late-night talk shows with what is essentially divine kingship.
“There are people who called Obama ‘Barack’ until . . . he became ‘Mr. President.’ Is it like that?” mused Winters. “I can’t let my head go there, or it might explode.”