The sudden resignation of the most senior Roman Catholic cardinal in Britain, who stepped aside on 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 had 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 Cardinal 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 Cardinal Mahony would leave many more cardinals similarly vulnerable. Many of the men who will go into the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope they hope will help the church recover from the bruising scandal of sexual abuse have themselves 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 American 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?"
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 pope in 2005, many Catholics hoped that 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 listened personally to their testimonies of pain. After the abuse scandal paralyzed the church in Europe in 2010, and began to emerge 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 just 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.
They also include cardinals reviled by many in their own countries, like Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, who survived an uproar after government investigations uncovered endemic cover-ups of the sexual and physical abuse of minors.
"There's so many of them," said Justice Anne Burke, a judge in Illinois who served on the American bishops' first advisory board 10 years ago. "They all have participated in one way or another in having actual information about criminal conduct, and not doing anything about it. What are you going to do? They're all not going to participate in the conclave?"
Even one cardinal frequently mentioned as a leading candidate for pope has been accused of turning a blind eye toward abuse victims. A Canadian, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, issued apologies to the many victims of abuse in church boarding schools in Quebec Province, but left behind widespread resentment when he reportedly refused to meet with them.
Much of the attention has been focused on Cardinal Mahony. Last month a court ordered the release of 12,000 pages of internal church files on abusive priests, including many damaging documents with his signature. The documents reveal, among other things, that he advised priests to stay out of California to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Other Americans who have failed to remove priests accused of abuse, but received less attention, include Cardinal Justin Rigali, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, according to Terry McKiernan, co-director and president of BishopAccountability.org, a Web site that tracks abuse cases.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned from the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 at the height of the American scandal and moved to Rome, where he was assigned to preside at a majestic basilica, is too old to vote in the coming conclave. However, he is eligible to participate in the general congregation meetings that precede the conclave.
In Chile, sexual abuse survivors and their advocates have aimed the spotlight on Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, a former archbishop of Santiago. They say that for years he ignored their accusations against one of the country's most prominent and influential priests, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, and refused to meet with the victims or to conduct an investigation.
After the victims publicized their claims, court and church investigations against Father Karadima found him guilty of the abuses, and in early 2011 the Vatican ordered him to retire to "a life of prayer and penitence." But Cardinal Errázuriz is expected to vote in the conclave.
The senior British prelate who resigned on Monday, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, said he would not attend the conclave. Three priests and a former priest accused him of making sexual advances. Although the men were not minors at the time, he held a position of authority as their church superior.
At a news conference in Rome on Tuesday, David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, told reporters that coming to grips with the sexual abuse crisis should be a priority for the next pope.
"From the new pope, we'd simply expect courage," he said. "We long for the day when church officials announce that this cardinal or this bishop is being demoted because church officials have found proof of wrongdoing and church officials want to clean things up."
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile; Ian Austen from Ottawa; and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.
Correction: February 27, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated part of the address of a Web site that tracks abuse cases. It is BishopAccountability.org, not BishopAccountability.com.
Correction: February 27, 2013, Wednesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the Roman church over which Cardinal Bernard Law presides. It is a basilica, not a cathedral.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.