Cardinal O’Malley in “front row” as contender for pope

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley HIGH PRAISE: Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley has been named as a possibility to replace Pope Benedict XVI.

Vatican watchers buzzing over next month’s expected papal conclave say Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley’s name could emerge after the church’s famed white smoke clears, a long-considered pontiff impossibility experts now believe could be reality as concerns over an American pope subside and the Hub archbishop’s star rises.

The chatter about O’Malley kicked into widespread debate yesterday after John L. Allen Jr., a highly respected Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a blog post that the cardinal’s name has been making the rounds in the Italian press, both in praise of his handling of the clergy sex-abuse scandal and his growing profile as a “prominent” non-European papal contender.

It’s made the notion of an American pope — long considered implausible given the country’s superpower status — now “thinkable,” said Allen, who pointed to Pope Benedict XVI’s Feb. 28 send-off as the real test of traction when gathering cardinals begin hashing out their favorites.

“For every major crisis that seems to pop up as a front-burner issue, Cardinal Sean brings some real gifts,” said Ernest Collamati, chairman of philosophy and religious studies at Regis College.

“His appearance is one of a man of simple habit,” Collamati added, noting that in light of the politicking that dominates the Holy See and scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank and church abuse crisis, “this might appear to be the kind of medicine needed. … And he has worked with immigrant communities as well. He would have a real feel for cultural diversity.”

O’Malley declined comment through an archdiocese spokeswoman, who referred a Herald reporter to comments he made last week at a press conference, where he said he wasn’t interested in the post.

That in itself could be a benefit, theologians said.

“There are 117 cardinals, and 116 of them want to be pope. I would say the only one that doesn’t want to be pope is Sean O’Malley,” said Thomas Groome, chair of the Department of Religious Education at Boston College. “I don’t think he would be looking for the trappings of power. I think the guys that are looking for it won’t get it — at least that’s the tradition — and the ones who aren’t looking for it are more likely.

“And that,” he said, “would put Sean in the front row.”

O’Malley’s work amid the clergy sex abuse scandal is perhaps his biggest draw, after he addressed crises in Fall River, Palm Beach, Fla., and Boston, where many lauded him in the wake of Cardinal Bernard Law’s mishandling of abuse claims. O’Malley then gained further renown on the international stage when he was tabbed to address the scandal’s explosion in Ireland.

“If one wanted to make a statement in regards to sexual abuse, he would be the ideal candidate,” said Francis Fiorenza, chairman of Catholic theological studies at Harvard University.

But O’Malley’s work also hasn’t come without criticism, including from victims advocate, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which chastised the Hub prelate for what they called the slow and “incomplete” release of names of accused priests.

“He gets an A-plus for symbolism,” said David Clohessy, director of SNAP. “But most people realize that he’s done very little with job one, and job one is making kids safer.”

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