As the Sistine Chapel closed yesterday to visitors in order to prepare for the upcoming papal conclave, rumors are swirling through the media on the so-called papabili, those cardinals seen to be the strongest candidates to appear on St. Peter’s balcony as the 266th pope.

According to Canon law, any baptized Roman Catholic male can be elected pope. However, the last time a non-cardinal became pontiff was 1378, when archbishop Bartolomeo Prignano was elevated to the papal throne as Urban VI.

It is therefore expected that the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will be chosen among 115 voting cardinals representing 50 countries.

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The largest voting groups among the  “princes of the church” are from Italy, with 28 electors, and the United States with 11.

Overall, Europe will have more than half of the total electors (61), while North and South America have another 33. The remaining cardinals from Africa, Asia and Oceania make a total of only 23 votes.

The names of papabili that have come up over and over again in speculation are those of Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68, Italians Angelo Scola, 71, and Angelo Bagnasco, 70, Ghana’s Peter Turkson, 64, Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri, 69, Hungarian Peter Erdo, 65, and US Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63.

Circulating among the growing number of journalists covering the news from St. Peter’s -– more than 5,000 reporters are now accredited for the conclave –- the list also include outsiders such as Italian Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, Sean O’Malley, 68, USA, Christoph Schoenborn, 67, Austria, Odilo Pedro Scherer, 63, and Joao Braz de Aviz, 65, both from Brazil, Philippe Barbarin, 62, and Jean-Louis Tauran, 70, both from France, Willem Jacobus Eijk, 59, Holland, and Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, Philippines.

But history has yielded plenty of surprises and the new pope could come from someone largely ignored in media ranks such as Dominik Jaroslav Duka, 70, Czech Republic, Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, 70, Peru, Reinhard Marx, 59, from Germany, and Agostino Vallini, 73, the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome.

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According to Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, there are two different opinions among the cardinals about what type of Pope is needed to solve the Church’s dramatic problems highlighted by the Vatileaks corruption scandal. At the center of everything is the Roman Curia, the administration assisting the Pope.

“There are two general views. The first one maintains that, since the current Church’s problem comes from the Curia, we should elect someone outside the Curia; the second argues that there is a need for an internal leader, since the first commitment of the new Pope should be the Curia reform,” O’Malley said at a press conference in Rome yesterday.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George remarked that potential candidates also include names that have not yet appeared in the media short lists.

“I can tell you that the list of papal contenders is growing rather than shrinking,” George said.

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According to bookmakers, who are taking bets on Benedict XVI’s successor, Scola, Turkson and Oullet are among the five top candidates. But predictions could be turned on their heads, as happened on Oct. 16, 1978, when the name of the almost unknown Carol Wojtyla of Cracow was announced to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square.

“To enter the conclave a pope is to exit a cardinal,” runs a Vatican saying.

Today, several cardinals might have had their papal ambitions crashed as a group representing survivors of sexual abuse by priests released a blacklist of cardinals.

The “Dirty Dozen” list is based on the cardinals’ “actions and/or public comment about child sex abuse and cover up in the church,” SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, said at a news conference in Rome.

The cardinals are: Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico; Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras; Timothy Michael Dolan of New York; Italians Angelo Scola and Tarcisio Bertone, Australia’s George Pell; Dominik Duka of the Czech Republic; Donald Wuerl of Washington DC; Marc Ouellet from Quebec; Sean O’Malley from Boston; Argentina’s Leonardo Sandri; and Peter Turkson from Ghana.

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According to SNAP, cardinals of note in the list are Maradiaga, Turkson and Bertone, for not willing to let bishops involve the police in sex-abuse allegations and blaming child sex abuse by priests on the “homosexual infiltration” of the clergy.

But the group is particularly opposed to a candidacy of Dolan. The New York’s cardinal “devised a secret plan to pay pedophile priests $20,000 each to quietly leave the ministry,” the SNAP said.

“At least 12 priests are known to have gotten payouts,” they added.

While the cardinals on the list have not yet responded to SNAP’s claims, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, rejected the group’s attempt to affect the election of the new pope.

“I believe that it is up to the cardinals themselves to judge who is suitable and who is not suitable, without asking for advice from SNAP,” Lombardi said.

Image: The new pope will appear from this balcony in St. Peter’s. Credit: Rossella Lorenzi