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

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“There’s just a sense that the Americans might have some skills and some ways of addressing some of these very real problems that the church is facing,” Rev. Rausch says. “The American church may have learned late [how to prevent and handle abuse cases], but it learned.”

On the other hand, American bishops come from a system that covered up abuse crimes and protected offending priests, according to Sally Vance-Trembath, a Santa Clara University theologian and former national vice president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic reform group. In that sense, she says, all American bishops come with baggage that could burden a pontificate, especially if more revelations of abuse and cover-up come to light.

That may apply more to the charismatic Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has said that while Dolan was archbishop of Milwaukee it had a policy of making $20,000 payments to accused pedophile priests as incentives for them to leave the priesthood, according to multiple news reports.

“My guess is that group of cardinals is just going to look at the United States and say, ‘look at that mess’ ” that’s come from the abuse crisis, Vance-Trembath says. “They have a lot to lose by electing anyone from the United States.”

Whether abuse crisis management ultimately helps or hurts prospects for an American pope, other longstanding factors will surely come to bear. And these suggest the next pontiff will likely come from somewhere else.

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