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.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
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.

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.

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.

That may apply more to the charismatic Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has said that while Dolan was archbishop of Milwaukee it had a policy of making $20,000 payments to accused pedophile priests as incentives for them to leave the priesthood, according to multiple news reports.

“My guess is that group of cardinals is just going to look at the United States and say, ‘look at that mess’ ” that’s come from the abuse crisis, Vance-Trembath says. “They have a lot to lose by electing anyone from the United States.”

Whether abuse crisis management ultimately helps or hurts prospects for an American pope, other longstanding factors will surely come to bear. And these suggest the next pontiff will likely come from somewhere else.

For example, unlike Europeans, Americans as a group are not known to be great linguists, according to Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center who has authored several books on the Catholic hierarchy. More importantly, he adds, peoples worldwide might not warmly receive an American in the church’s highest office.

“The cardinals would worry about how the election of an American would be perceived around the world, especially in the third world and Muslim nations,” Rev. Reese said this week in an e-mail from Rome. “Many in the third world would suspect that the C.I.A. fixed the election or Wall Street bought it. Muslims would fear that an American pope was going to be a chaplain for the White House.”

Such factors might not be insurmountable. Reese notes O’Malley’s modest personality and identity as a simply clothed, Capuchin Franciscan Friar might outweigh traditional reservations about naming an American pope.

So might his fluency in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

But other factors, including demography, work against Americans’ chances. Only eight percent of the world’s Catholics reside in North America, while two-thirds live in South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. If cardinals decide they want a pope who reflects the “Global South,” the next pontiff might be Filipino or Brazilian, not American.

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