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U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony arrives to attend a mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this April 13, 2005 file photo.

MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony should follow the lead of his British counterpart, put the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church ahead of his own personal ambition, and recuse himself from the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Mahony's presence will only further harm the church, and take the focus away from the important task of electing a new Pope for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. The former Archbishop of Los Angeles has been accused of protecting priests who sexually abused children, claims that are backed up by church files.

In contrast, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's only cardinal elector, announced on Monday that he would not attend the conclave after allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced. Although he has denied the allegations that he behaved inappropriately with priests during his three-decade career, the mere existence of such claims brings further unwanted attention to the sexual abuse scandal during this key transition period for the papacy.

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Vatican watchers have speculated that it was in part such scandals that led to the resignation of Pope Benedict on Feb. 11 – an unprecedented move that took even his own advisers by surprise. His resignation takes effect on Thursday.

The next Pope will have to work to contain the ongoing fallout from the scandal, which centres on the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the subsequent cover-up of their criminal behaviour.

In the U.S., Catholic activists have lobbied Cardinal Mahony, now retired, not to attend the conclave, pointing to thousands of pages of internal church records that document his failure to take sufficient action against abusive priests in the country's largest archdiocese. Cardinal Mahony has the right to attend conclaves until he reaches the age of 80; at least one other cardinal has noted that he should be guided by his conscience.

By travelling to Rome, he has placed his own desire to exercise power and influence ahead of the interests of the church. His absence, in contrast, would represent a small step on a much larger path to restore the credibility of an embattled institution.

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