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Cardinal Marc Ouellet walks through Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City on March 11, 2013.Tony Gentile/Reuters

Allegations of sexual misconduct against one of Canada’s most prominent Catholic clerics, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, have cast into doubt his status as a leading conservative candidate to succeed Pope Francis.

Regardless of their merit, the new accusations could destroy his chances of one day being elevated to the papacy, and deal a considerable setback to the conservative faction that favours him for that role, according to David Gibson, a veteran Vatican observer.

“Cardinal Ouellet was the most appealing and best bet for a conservative restoration, and now I think it’s back to square one for them,” said Mr. Gibson, who is the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, and the author of two books on Catholicism.

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The accusations against Cardinal Ouellet are contained in a class-action lawsuit against him and dozens of other members of the diocese of Quebec City, where he was archbishop before taking a post at the Vatican in 2010. Over 100 plaintiffs allege they were sexually abused by church officials – including parish priests, chaplains, teachers and lay officials – at various times dating back to the 1940s.

In court papers, a Quebec City woman identified only as F. claims that, at public events between 2008 and 2010, the Cardinal inappropriately rubbed her shoulders, hugged her, kissed her on the cheeks and slipped his hand down her back, close to her buttocks. The documents say she was in her 20s at the time and working as a pastoral intern. The allegations have not been tested in court.

The traditionalist faction that is said to back Cardinal Ouellet is made up of clerics who have felt alienated by Pope Francis’s papacy. The Pope has embraced atheists, LGBTQ people and Catholics who have divorced and remarried. And he has criticized colonialism, consumerism and the concentration of power among the clergy.

Pope Francis and Cardinal Marc Ouellet arrive at the opening of a three-day symposium at the Vatican on Feb. 17.Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press

While Pope Francis has denied rumours of his impending retirement, he has acknowledged that poor health may force him to step aside in the future – much like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who was the first pope to voluntarily resign in more than 700 years.

Douglas Bryce Farrow, a professor of theology and ethics at McGill University’s School of Religious Studies, noted that speculation about the next pope has already started.

Although there are still unanswered questions about financial corruption and sexual abuse within the church, “the greater struggle will be between those who want the church to continue down the path that leads away from doctrinal and moral and liturgical clarity, and those who desire a return to roots, a restoration of foundations,” he said.

Cardinal Ouellet is seen as a staunch opponent of secularism, abortion, same-sex marriage and loosening restrictions on clerical celibacy. Despite his conservative views, he has managed to maintain close ties with liberal clerics.

“He’s an old-fashioned culture-warrior type, but he’s flexible enough to be a friend of Pope Francis,” said Emma Anderson, a religious studies professor at the University of Ottawa.

For the past 12 years, Cardinal Ouellet has presided over the Vatican department responsible for elevating new bishops and archbishops, giving him considerable clout within the 206-member College of Cardinals, 116 of whom would be able to vote to elect the next pope.

The new allegations will likely put an end to Cardinal Ouellet’s candidacy, Mr. Gibson said. “It would be a bad look for a church that’s trying to clean up the issue of inappropriate sexual conduct,” he said. “It would dominate all discussions. He wouldn’t be able to do anything else.”

In an article last week on the Catholic news website Crux, another long-time Vatican watcher, John L. Allen, said the two presumptive front-runners are the Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who is seen as someone who would continue Pope Francis’s policies, and the Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, who is seen as likely to steer the church away from Francis’s approach.

Another factor is Cardinal Ouellet’s age. Cardinals have to be under 80 years old to take part in a conclave, the gathering where they elect a pope. At 78, Cardinal Ouellet would only be able to enter a conclave if it began before June 8, 2024.

Justin Wee, a lawyer representing F. and the other class-action plaintiffs, said in an interview that about 10 people have contacted his law firm with complaints about church officials since the allegations against Cardinal Ouellet became public. Three of those people made allegations involving the diocese of Quebec City, but none were against the Cardinal.

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