Paedophilia scandals weigh on body to elect next pope

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Activists fighting for truth and justice for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests hold out little hope for progress under the next pope as controversy brews over a US cardinal who covered up for predator clerics.

A Catholic association has asked retired Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony to stay away from next month's conclave after he was stripped of all public duties for mishandling sex abuse claims against dozens of priests.

Supporters reject the demonisation of Benedict on this issue and say he has been the first Pontiff to really confront the problem, meet with victims and punish abusers, as well as try to formulate Church-wide rules against abuse. But victims groups say that is far from enough given the scale of the problem.

"We're not in the least bit optimistic," said Ms Sue Cox of the Britain-based Survivors Network Europe, herself a victim of a paedophile priest when she was 10 to 13 years of age. "They would prefer for it all to go away", voicing her fear that "with all the pomp and ceremony they will try to bury the past".

The scourge of abusive priests burst into the light of day more than a decade ago with a cascade of scandals rocking the Church worldwide, from Ireland to the United States, from Australia to the Pope's native Germany.

The Vatican continues to receive around 600 claims against abusive priests every year, many of them dating back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Ms Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in the United States said the tide of revelations cannot be turned back.

"Criminal cases are breaking all over," she said. "The floodgates are opening."

Ms Cox and other activists say the conclave includes several cardinal electors who are implicated directly or indirectly in the scourge. Chief among them is Cardinal Mahony, who was archbishop of Los Angeles from 1985 to 2011 and appeared to systematically protect abusers from criminal prosecution, according to hundreds of documents released by the investigation.

An online poll carried out by Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana found an overwhelming majority of respondents were against the cardinal.