By Robin Pomeroy
ROME (Reuters) - American and Italian Catholics have called for a U.S. cardinal accused of covering up sexual abuse by priests not to take part in electing a new pope, saying he would taint the new pontiff with the same scandal that dogged Benedict.
Italy's best-selling magazine Famiglia Cristiana - "Christian Family" - asked its readers whether Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles until 2011, should attend the conclave that elects a successor to Pope Benedict next month - and the overwhelming answer was "no".
The magazine, a weekly popular among churchgoers and very influential in Italy, took up the charge after the U.S. group Catholics United launched a signature drive against Mahony and asked its own readers to vote yes or no.
"No, he must not participate, for the good of the Church," wrote Superemme, in a typical response among hundreds on Famiglia Cristiana's website. "I'm a believer and I love the Church and I wish that those who erred in covering up for pedophiles should not, by their presence, cast a shadow on the good ones."
The petition launched last week in the United States had more than 5,000 signatures as of Tuesday representing a tiny fraction of the roughly one in four Americans who are Catholics.
"Please do not bring further scandal to our Church that has already been rocked by the sex abuse crisis by attending the papal conclave. You have been disciplined and you have lost your ability to have a voice within our Church," said the petition from the Washington-based group.
As archbishop of Los Angeles from 1985, Mahony worked to send priests known to be abusers out of state to shield them from law enforcement scrutiny in the 1980s, according to church files unsealed under a U.S. court order last month.
Although his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, removed him from all public and administrative duties, Mahony has announced his intention to fly to Rome where he would be among 117 cardinals allowed into the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to vote for the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Last week, Benedict, 85, became the first pope in centuries to abdicate rather than die in office, saying effects of old age meant he was unable to complete his ministry.
His eight-year reign will be remembered by many for the child sex abuse scandal in Europe and the United States - most of which took place in the 1980s but which came to light more recently.
In his former position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, critics say he was ultimately responsible for the way child abuse by priests was covered up for decades in order to preserve the Church's reputation.
The Vatican denies this, saying he enacted procedures to shield children from abuse in the future and to screen out potential pedophiles from entering the priesthood in the first place.
A minority of comments on Famiglia Cristiana's website said Mahony, 76, should attend the conclave which is open only to cardinals - the "princes of the Church" - under the age of 80.
"Absolutely YES," wrote Francescana_Secolare. "It amazes me that a Catholic newspaper should ask the question ... Should we doubt the action of the Holy Spirit inside the conclave?"
On a similar vein, marcocspt wrote: "Thank goodness the Lord did not use opinion polls to choose and confirm the apostles ... Obviously I choose not to answer your question."
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Jason Webb)