As one of the cardinal electors for the next pope, O'Brien, who later apologized for sexual misconduct with other clergy, could have had a say in the next pope. Technically, he could have become the next pontiff.
But in an exclusive interview with the Tribune before the American cardinals' moratorium, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said there are attempts to vet candidates to avoid surprises. He also said ties to anyone guilty of sexual misconduct — whether intended or unintended — could put a man's candidacy in question if it could distract from his spiritual mission.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP, said that kind of vetting should have been taking place for decades. On Wednesday, Clohessy's group issued a list of a dozen cardinals whose selection as pope would cause further offense to victims of sex abuse by priests.
"If it's starting now, it's progress," said Clohessy, who is also in Rome during the papal transition. "Realistically, if someone will deceive his staff and his flock, he's likely to try to deceive his colleagues as well."
George said that given the troubling circumstances surrounding the issue of priest sex abuse, cardinals aren't just asking about leadership and communication style. They are asking about each man's moral character, he said.
"Does he have a past?" George gave as an example. "(O'Brien) has been in people's minds and hearts. They'll talk about the feeble witness of the church today because of the sins of churchmen. That would be one of them. So without mentioning him in particular, there are enough others that certainly contribute to that conviction."
George has said because there are victims, cardinals must address the issue of sexual misconduct in the pre-conclave meetings. He also said cardinals must select a pontiff who upholds the zero tolerance policy that he helped broker in Rome for American bishops in 2002. He believes that policy is the universal law of the church, though it's up to individual bishops conferences to adopt their own rules.
"There is a failure because of personal sinfulness that has contributed to the problems of the church and weakness of her mission," George said. "There's a deep felt sense of that. There's no self-righteousness in these meetings. There's a deep felt sense that … we're part of the problem."
George draws a line between denying O'Brien the privilege of voting in the conclave and barring Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, who has been censured by his successor for covering up clergy sexual misconduct.
"Each cardinal has the right to be part of the conclave, and each has to make his own decision about participating in it," he said. "The situations of the two cardinals … are different. Perhaps that contributes to different decisions."
Clohessy disagreed. Misconduct is misconduct, he said.
"If you repeatedly put kids in harm's way or protect predators, you should give up your right to pick the next pope," he said.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, Vatican spokesman, said on Wednesday that it "isn't up to SNAP ... to determine who should or should not participate in the conclave."
To be chosen as pope, George said a man should have a spotless record. Any connection to wrongdoing could overshadow his witness.
For example, cardinals who reportedly supported the late Rev. Marcial Maciel, the Legion of Christ founder who allegedly abused boys and fathered up to six children, might not be strong candidates, George said. Media reports have named Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina as cardinals who protected Maciel.
"Everybody knows about the terrible case of Father Maciel. Who was involved in that? That certainly is considered," George said.
"Even if in all good faith they really were convinced that this man was a man of God — and they were — it still isn't going to help," he added. "Now it's public record. ... People know who was associated with him. That would contribute to a sense of this might not be the way to go."
The list of cardinals that SNAP has deemed problematic picks for pope includes Sandri because of his ties to Maciel, Clohessy said.
email@example.com Twitter @TribSeeker