The sudden resignation of the most senior Roman Catholic cardinal in Britain, who stepped aside Monday in the face of accusations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago, showed that the taint of scandal could force a cardinal from participating in the selection of a new pope.
His exit came as at least a dozen other cardinals tarnished with accusations that they failed to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors were among those gathering in Rome to prepare for the conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.
There was no sign that the church’s promise to confront the sexual abuse scandal had led to direct pressure on those cardinals to exempt themselves from the conclave.
Advocates for abuse victims who were in Rome on Tuesday focused particular ire on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, and called for him to be excluded from the conclave. But Mahony, who has vigorously defended his record, was already in Rome, posting on Twitter about the weather.
Even stalwart defenders of the church point out that to disqualify Mahony would leave many more cardinals similarly vulnerable.
Many of the men who will go into the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope who they hope will help the church recover from the bruising scandal of sexual abuse have been blemished by it.
‘‘Among bishops and cardinals, certainly the old guys who have been involved for so long, sure they’re going to have blood on their hands,’’ said Thomas G. Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, who has served on the US bishops’ national abuse advisory board and has written three books on sexual abuse. ‘‘So when Cardinal Mahony says he’s being scapegoated, in some respects I think he’s right. All the focus is on him, but what about the other guys?’’
Target of ire
Among the many challenges facing the church, addressing the wounds caused by sexual abuse is among the top priorities, church analysts say. When Benedict was elected in 2005, many Catholics hoped his previous experience at the helm of the Vatican office that dealt with abuse cases would result in substantive changes.
Benedict has repeatedly apologized to victims and has listened personally to their testimonies of pain. After the abuse scandal paralyzed the church in Europe in 2010 and emerged on other continents, Benedict issued new policies for bishops to follow on handling sexual abuse accusations, and he held a conference at the Vatican on the issue.
But despite calls from many Catholics, he never removed prelates who, court cases and documents revealed, put children at risk by failing to report pedophiles or remove them from the priesthood.
It is not that these cardinals behaved so differently from the others, or that they do not have achievements to their names. It is that they happened to come from pinpoints on the Catholic world map where long-hidden secrets became public because victims organized, government officials investigated, lawyers sued, or the news media paid attention.
They include cardinals from Belgium, Chile, and Italy. They include the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, who is accused of taking large monetary gifts from a religious order, the Legion of Christ, and halting an investigation into its founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel — who was later exposed as a pathological abuser and liar.