As the Papal Conclave grows closer, the media coverage of clergy sexual abuse (in part spurred by recent events) has grown louder.  This is as it should be.  The anger and pain caused by the actions (and omissions) of those in whom the faithful place implicit trust cannot and should not be anywhere other than the front of the minds of the Cardinals as they discern their decision. Whatever their shortcomings may be in proposing solutions (Frank Bruni’s recent rant against celibacy was particularly misinformed, as James Martin demonstrates here), the media have done the Church a great service by reminding us of the horrific scope of this problem–and its toll on our most vulnerable community members.

This is a problem for the whole Church, of course, but it is a particular problem for the Pope.  In his final public address today, Benedict XVI shared his personal feelings about the huge burden that was placed upon him. Tellingly, he said that there were times he felt like “the Lord was asleep.”  The Church is about to welcome a new person into the position of taking on this huge burden, and he must be the kind of leader who can go beyond the (admittedly good) things Benedict did in addressing sexual abuse.

This person should not follow the example of Cardinal Mahony, the disgraced former Archbishop of Los Angeles, who recently found himself removed from public ministry by LA’s current Archbishop Gomez for his hiding of sexual abusers.  Instead of deciding to humble himself in penitential prayer, Mahony has instead traveled to Rome to be a part of the team to vote for the next Pope. When criticized for this, he responded with self-righteous tweets: “Anyone interested in loving your enemies, or doing good to those who persecute you? See my blog for today. Wow, Jesus is demanding.”

He and others should heed the words of Cardinal Dolan, who rightly said that the Conclave should be an occasion of repentance:

“All you got to do is listen to the radio, watch TV or read the newspapers to find out how much we need contrition, repentance, conversion of heart,” he said during a Mass at St. John the Evangelist Parish on First Avenue and 55th Street, attended by about 200 staff members of the Archdiocese of New York. “We are all conscious of that old Latin saying ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda’: The church is always in need of reform. Always.”

O'Malley laying prostrateBut what type of leader is best for instituting “contribution, repentance, and conversation of heart”?  Perhaps it is described best, not by words, but by this image of Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and the Archbishop of Dublin laying prostrate before the bare altar during a mass of repentance for Irish sexual abuse victims.  In another act of humility, Cardinal O’Malley also washed the feet of several Irish abuse victims.  Why was Boston’s Cardinal-Archbishop in Dublin celebrating this mass?  It was because the Vatican asked him to go in light of his record of rooting out what Pope Benedict rightly called the “filth” of priestly sexual abuse and its coverup.  Despite the deep institutional support in favor of Cardinal Law’s policies (another Archbishop disgraced by his handling of sexual abuse cases), O’Malley not only managed to change the culture in Boston, he did it at his previous two stops as well.

John Allen thinks of him as a contender, but it seems clear that O’Malley’s is the kind of person who doesn’t want to be Pope. Yet another reason that he–or someone like him–should be a serious candidate.