VATICAN CITY — The scandal over sex abuse by American priests intruded on the mourning for Pope John Paul II here Monday as all but one U.S.-based cardinal avoided a Mass led by Boston's disgraced former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law.
Three of the seven cardinals -- Edward M. Egan of New York, Francis George of Chicago and Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles -- snubbed the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica out of concern over Law's notoriety, three American church sources said.
"There was a general feeling it was best not to be there," said a source familiar with one cardinal's thinking. He said there had been an understanding among at least some of the cardinals to stay away.
Another source said the absence of most U.S. cardinals sent a message of protest. "You'd have to be blind not to see that," he said. "The fact is, they voted with their feet." A third source said the no-shows were part of a "pattern."
All three sources spoke on condition of anonymity two days after the Vatican announced a gag order on the 115 cardinals who are to meet Monday to elect John Paul's successor. None of the American cardinals would comment.
Law's role in the requiem Mass infuriated sexual abuse victims and their advocates in the United States and prompted two of them to stage a brief protest Monday in St. Peter's Square.
Justin Rigali of Philadelphia was the only U.S. resident cardinal present at the Mass with Law. The other American-based cardinals -- William Keeler of Baltimore, Adam Maida of Detroit and Theodore McCarrick of Washington -- had scheduling conflicts or decided not to attend after being informed that their presence was not mandatory, their aides said.
Most cardinals from other countries also skipped the Mass on a rainy afternoon, but their motives were unknown.
The silent rebuke by some American cardinals was a new setback in the Vatican's effort to rehabilitate Law, once the most powerful U.S. cardinal and a favorite of John Paul for his steadfast defense of conservative church teachings.
Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after disclosures that pedophile priests had been transferred from parish to parish in his jurisdiction, only to abuse more children. Soon the crisis engulfed much of the U.S. church, including the Diocese of Orange and Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Last year, Law was transferred to the Vatican, and the pope gave him the honorary job as archpriest of one of Rome's four main basilicas, St. Mary Major. Citing rules published in 2000, Vatican officials said Law's designation to say Monday's Mass was an automatic consequence of his position.
With the cardinals sworn to silence over their deliberations on a future pope, the sex abuse issue moved into the spotlight.
Outside the basilica, Barbara Blaine and Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests turned up before the Mass to hand out leaflets protesting Law's role in the service. The group had pleaded with U.S. cardinals to try to reverse the decision, which Blaine said had "rubbed salt in the wounds" of abuse victims.
Some passersby offered support to Blaine, of Chicago, and Dorris, of St. Louis.
"If she wants to be here and voice her opinion and protect kids, I think it's a good thing to do," said Don Schmidt of Neenah, Wis. "I kind of thought the pope should have been a little harder on some of the cardinals for what happened in the U.S. I think he was a little easy on them."
But the protest was short-lived. As television crews and reporters descended on her, Blaine appeared startled. Moments later, police directed the two women and the gaggle of reporters out of the barricaded square.
Later, Blaine attended part of the Mass.
"It's such a beautiful setting and such a solemn moment where we were trying to show our respect to the Holy Father," she said afterward. "It was just sad to look up and see Cardinal Law as the leader of it."
The Mass was the fourth held by the cardinals in St. Peter's during the novendiali, nine days of official mourning for John Paul, who died April 2 and was buried Friday under a marble slab in a crypt beneath St. Peter's.
The crypt will be open to visitors starting Wednesday.
Law is the only American cardinal to say a novendiali Mass. The series of eulogies offers nine selected cardinals a platform to influence the election of a new pontiff by extolling qualities in the late pope that they would like to see in the next one.
By delivering one of the eulogies, Law was able to do what most other cardinals are not allowed to: air his views in public.
Speaking slowly in slightly accented Italian, Law recalled the pope in his homily as a profoundly holy man, a missionary who "traveled to the ends of the Earth, preaching Jesus Christ."