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An American pope? What could help, or hinder, two cardinals' chances.

The US cardinals' experience dealing with the sex abuse crisis is seen alternately as a strength and a weakness. But other factors make any American a dark horse candidate to be the next pope.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / March 12, 2013

From left, US Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Timothy Dolan, Francis George, and Roger Mahony exit the North American College to go to the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Martae, the Vatican hotel where the cardinals stay during the conclave, in Rome, Tuesday.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

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Americans were dark horse long shots, as usual, to become pope as cardinals closed the doors of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Tuesday and began a conclave to choose a new holy father to guide the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

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This time around, however, observers say Americans bring a new wild-card factor in the form of unique experience handling fallout from the clergy sexual abuse crisis. That background could be either an asset or a liability, depending on how the 115 cardinal-electors inside the chapel view it.

At least two American cardinals seem to be in the running: New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley. Both have won praise for their administering of large dioceses and confronting cultural trends. Cardinal O’Malley is particularly known for bold moves to help heal Boston, where the abuse crisis first came to light in 2002 and left deep wounds, including distrust of the Catholic hierarchy.

Addressing the abuse crisis on a global scale must be high on the agenda for the next pope, along with renewing evangelism and reforming the Roman Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Catholic Church, to decentralize power. That’s according to Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit theologian at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who believes Americans might get serious consideration largely because they’ve done the most to troubleshoot sexual abuse.

“There’s just a sense that the Americans might have some skills and some ways of addressing some of these very real problems that the church is facing,” Rev. Rausch says. “The American church may have learned late [how to prevent and handle abuse cases], but it learned.”

On the other hand, American bishops come from a system that covered up abuse crimes and protected offending priests, according to Sally Vance-Trembath, a Santa Clara University theologian and former national vice president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic reform group. In that sense, she says, all American bishops come with baggage that could burden a pontificate, especially if more revelations of abuse and cover-up come to light.

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