VATICAN CITY — Popular pressure is mounting in the United States and Italy to keep Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles away from the conclave to elect the next pope because of his role shielding sexually abusive priests, a movement targeting one of the most prominent of a handful of compromised cardinals scheduled to vote next month.
Amid the outcry, Mahony has made clear he will attend, and no one can force him to recuse himself. A Vatican historian also said Wednesday that there is no precedent for a cardinal staying home because of personal scandal. But the growing grass-roots campaign is an indication that ordinary Catholics are increasingly demanding a greater say in who is fit to elect their pope, and casts an ugly shadow over the upcoming papal election.
Conclaves always bring out the worst in cardinals’ dirty laundry, with past sins and transgressions aired anew in the slow news days preceding the vote. This time is no different — except that the disclosures of Mahony’s sins are so fresh and come on the tails of a recent round of sex abuse scandals in the United States and Europe.
This week, the influential Italian Catholic affairs magazine Famiglia Cristiana asked its readers if Mahony should participate in the conclave given the disclosures. ‘‘Your opinion: Mahony in the conclave: Yes or No?’’ reads the online survey of one of Italy’s most-read magazines.
The overwhelming majority among more than 350 replies has been a clear-cut ‘‘No.’’
The magazine is distributed free in Italian parishes each Sunday. The fact that it initiated the poll is an indication that the Catholic establishment in Italy has itself questioned whether tarnished cardinals should be allowed to vote — a remarkable turn of events for a conservative Catholic country that has long kept quiet about priestly abuse and still is deferential to the church hierarchy in its backyard.
That initiative followed a petition by a group in the United States, Catholics United, demanding that Mahony recuse himself. So far 5,600 people have signed the petition, according to spokesman Chris Pumpelly.
‘‘It’s the right thing to do,’’ Andrea León-Grossman, a Los Angeles member of Catholics United, said in a statement on the group’s website. ‘‘In the interests of the children who were raped in his diocese, he needs to keep out of the public eye. He has already been stripped of his ministry. If he’s truly sorry for what has happened, he would show some humility and opt to stay home.’’
Mahony, however, has made clear he will vote. ‘‘Count-down to the papal conclave has begun. Your prayers needed that we elect the best pope for today and tomorrow’s church,’’ he tweeted earlier this week. He promised daily Twitter updates.
Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, one of the Vatican’s top canon lawyers, said that barring any canonical impediments, Mahony has a right and duty to vote in the conclave. At best, he said, someone could persuade him not to come, but De Paolis insisted he was not suggesting that someone should.
Bishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor, said it was up to Mahony’s conscience to decide whether or not to participate.
‘‘It’s not an easy situation for him,’’ Scicluna was quoted as saying by Rome daily La Repubblica.
Last month, a court in Los Angeles ordered the release of thousands of pages of confidential personnel files of more than 120 priests accused of sex abuse. The files show that Mahony and other top archdiocese officials maneuvered behind the scenes to shield accused priests and protect the church from a growing scandal while keeping parishioners in the dark.
Mahony was stripped of his public and administrative duties last month by his successor at the largest Catholic diocese in the United States. But the dressing-down by Archbishop Jose Gomez only affected Mahony’s work in the archdiocese, not his role as a cardinal. Gomez has since urged prayers for Mahony as he enters the conclave.
Mahony has responded to the outcry on his blog, writing about the many ‘‘humiliations’’ Jesus endured. ‘‘Given all of the storms that have surrounded me and the archdiocese of Los Angeles recently, God’s grace finally helped me to understand: I am not being called to serve Jesus in humility. Rather, I am being called to something deeper — to be humiliated, disgraced, and rebuffed by many,’’ Mahony wrote.