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An American pope? What could help, or hinder, two cardinals' chances.

The US cardinals' experience dealing with the sex abuse crisis is seen alternately as a strength and a weakness. But other factors make any American a dark horse candidate to be the next pope.

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From left, US Cardinals Donald Wuerl, Timothy Dolan, Francis George, and Roger Mahony exit the North American College to go to the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Martae, the Vatican hotel where the cardinals stay during the conclave, in Rome, Tuesday.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

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Americans were dark horse long shots, as usual, to become pope as cardinals closed the doors of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel Tuesday and began a conclave to choose a new holy father to guide the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

This time around, however, observers say Americans bring a new wild-card factor in the form of unique experience handling fallout from the clergy sexual abuse crisis. That background could be either an asset or a liability, depending on how the 115 cardinal-electors inside the chapel view it.

At least two American cardinals seem to be in the running: New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley. Both have won praise for their administering of large dioceses and confronting cultural trends. Cardinal O’Malley is particularly known for bold moves to help heal Boston, where the abuse crisis first came to light in 2002 and left deep wounds, including distrust of the Catholic hierarchy.

 
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