VATICAN CITY — The next pope must commit himself to ‘‘zero tolerance’’ of the sexual abuse of minors by clergymen, a senior US cardinal said Monday, the first day of deliberations by the princes of the Catholic Church ahead of the papal election.
The statement by Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, was a rare mention of the scandal in the context of discussing ‘‘papability’’ — the qualities and attributes desired by the cardinals in the man who will succeed the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, who relinquished the position Thursday.
‘‘He obviously has to accept the universal code of the church now, which is zero tolerance for anyone who has abused a child,’’ George said in answer to a question at a news conference. ‘‘There’s a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed.’’
George and other cardinals also said Monday they want to talk to Vatican managers about allegations of corruption and cronyism at the top levels of the church before they elect the next pope.
‘‘I would imagine that as we move along there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up,’’ George said.
The cardinal asserted that efforts by American churchmen had sharply reduced reported sex abuse cases. ‘‘But there’s still the victims,’’ he continued. ‘‘The wound is still deep in their hearts, and as long as it’s with them it will be with us. The pope has to keep this in mind.’’
The cardinals met Monday in the Paul VI auditorium on the first day of their general congregation meeting, when — under Vatican rules governing the period between popes — they discuss church business, set a date for the conclave when they will elect a new pope, and exchange views on the kind of pope they want. It is also a crucial time for them to get to know one another and assess possible candidates.
The date for the start of the conclave has not been set, as all of the cardinals who will participate have yet to arrive, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said. The date of the conclave should be fixed in the next few days, he said.
Still, the cardinals who are here have been giving interviews signaling the themes they are interested in. All emphasize they want a prayerful pope who can effectively transmit the Catholic message.
But nuances emerge: Some say they want a pope capable of reforming the bureaucracy of the Vatican, which has been hit with accusations of corruption in the past year. Others suggest a pope must come from the Third World, where Roman Catholicism is more vibrant than Europe. Still others want a pope with a strong governing hand.
Responding to the latest wave of sexual abuse scandals, which emerged with full force a decade ago in the United States and in Europe and elsewhere in more recent years, has not been as frequently discussed.
But it was not surprising that an American prelate addressed the matter so forcefully. US bishops early on pressed a ‘‘zero-tolerance’’ policy — the rapid removal from ministry of any priest credibly accused of abuse — and many other nations’ bishops followed suit. The Vatican has also taken a number of steps that it says will tighten sanctions against abuser priests.
One advocate for clerical sex abuse victims, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called George’s comments encouraging.
‘‘It should be a topic and we are glad that Cardinal George said it will be and must be,’’ he said, ‘‘but the focus has got to be on safeguarding kids first, healing victims second.’’
Vatican officials declined to comment on the acknowledgment Sunday by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain, that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct. Three priests and a former priest have accused him of making improper advances decades ago.
O’Brien announced his resignation after the accusations were made public and said he would not attend the conclave.
Lombardi said 142 of the 207 members of the College of Cardinals were present. Of those, just 103 of the 115 cardinals who are under the age of 80 — and thus eligible to vote for the new pope under Vatican rules — had so far arrived, he said. The Italian media have speculated that the starting date for the conclave could be March 10 or 11.
‘‘We’d like to be done before Holy Week starts and have a pope and go back to our dioceses,’’ George said. ‘‘We’ll take the time necessary to do the job well.’’
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminates with Easter on March 31.