A rare, leaked report about a papal election revealed great uncertainty in the 2013 picking of Pope Francis, with a huge number of cardinals getting votes — and for the first time top spots for an American and a Canadian.

A piece published Friday by America, a Catholic news site, gives what experts say is unprecedented public detail about a conclave — the normally top-secret event in which cardinals select popes. Participants take an oath not to share what goes on inside the rounds of voting, and some papal experts Friday said they feared the detailed leak could corrupt the entire process going forward.

Francis’s election followed Pope Benedict XVI’s historic, surprise resignation and came amid turmoil about dysfunction in the Vatican bureaucracy and a perceived lack of an inspiring spiritual leader at the helm of the world’s largest church. The votes revealed in the story show for the first time the dramatic shift away from Europe and toward the Americas as a center of Catholicism.

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Almost all top vote-getters for centuries have been Europeans, said America’s Vatican reporter, Gerard O’Connell, who wrote the piece entitled “Inside the election of Pope Francis.” But in 2013 the top four were an Italian (Angelo Scola), a South American — Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, from Argentina — Canadian Marc Ouellet and Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, the article reports.

Often, winners’ vote-counts get out years after conclaves, but several papal experts said this was the most detailed leak they had seen. It includes details of the scene leading up to the vote, and much more specific numbers -- how many people garnered any votes, names of many who won votes and how many they had received.

O’Connell’s story, which is excerpted from his upcoming book on the conclave, focuses on the first round of Francis’s election. Conclaves require a two-thirds vote and usually take several rounds to get there. Francis’s had five rounds. In the first round, of the 115 cardinal-electors, 23 names got votes — one-fifth of the total number of cardinals voting. (One of the 23 was a misspelling of Bergoglio, America reported.)

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Scola got 30, Bergoglio 26 (or 27 with the proper spelling), Ouellet 22 and O’Malley 10. Ouellet’s and O’Malley’s tallies were the highest conclave votes ever for North Americans, experts said.

The piece, which covers only the first round, describes that vote as tone-setting — surprising cardinals with the low number for the European Scola and making clear Bergoglio was very much in the running.

Experts on Friday offered different views of what the votes meant.

Some said it showed the cardinals were strongly driven by a desire for geographical diversity, as the church has been shrinking for years in Europe. Others said Bergoglio’s rise, and a strong showing for O’Malley, showed voters’ attraction to clerics known for their focus on the poor, immigrants, social questions and a simple lifestyle — compared with those known for their theological focus and correctness and clarity. Benedict is a towering theologian who is considered more on the conservative side, as are Scola and Ouellet, and all were people with many years as Vatican insiders. Some said Francis in 2013 wasn’t seen as the potential trailblazer he often is perceived as now; he was viewed as a Benedict-like pastor, but from a part of the world on the rise.

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In 2013 “there was so much concern over the managerial disarray in the Vatican, in the last years of Benedict XVI. There was a widespread sense: ‘We need someone from outside this milieu to come from outside and clean this all up.’ It was difficult, bordering on the impossible, to have an Italian elected” in that climate, said papal biographer George Weigel.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian who runs a center for the study of U.S. Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said Friday she was shocked O’Malley got so many votes. She noted that New York City’s archbishop, Timothy Dolan, got two votes in that first round, according to America.

“If reporters would ask [in 2013], ‘Could an American be pope?’ I’d laugh. But now I’m not sure about that,” she said.

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Cummings and O’Connell both said most cardinals recognized global Catholics would be skeptical of a pope from a superpower. She also noted that Americans have been voting in papal conclaves only for roughly the last century. It was a European affair until then — and Americans at times had literally missed the boat to get to Rome in time.

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The O’Malley votes, she said, could reflect voters’ desire for a more simple papal image. The Boston cleric is from a religious order, like Francis, whose character and style emphasize humility. (O’Malley is a Franciscan, Francis a Jesuit.) Cummings said it is possible O’Malley coming from a city associated with rehabilitating from the clergy sex abuse crisis was a strength.

“He has respect and credibility that a lot of people realize the church as a whole is lacking,” Cummings said.

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Several papal experts were very concerned about the leak. Catholicism teaches that the conclave is a spiritual event meant to support holy men in prayers that will lead them to a choice. The image of coalition-building and potential politicking — in other words, standard fare for an election — was worrisome to some.

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The leaker (or leakers) “are in violation of the secrecy they were sworn to. They took an oath,” said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, dean of theology at Catholic University in Washington. “The reason we desire to protect those [voting] is because this isn’t just a democratic process. This is a process that is human, but also each of them are called to present their thoughts before God. … This isn’t just a simple who gets the highest vote or politicking or campaigning on a political level.”

Morozowich said he didn’t want Catholics to overanalyze and focus on the voting process, or for future cardinal-voters to be thinking too much about what their fellow cardinals are thinking when they should be seeking what God is saying to their heart. “I don’t want people to say the church is divided,” he said.

O’Connell said people who shared the details with him emphasized the import of the election, with the knowledge he wasn’t going to publish right away. He said he has been working on the book since 2013.

“Everyone realized a seismic shift had happened, towards the Americas,” he said. “They wanted it to be important for history for people to know the story.”

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