Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Photo Reuters
A senior cleric has resigned under duress and Pope
Benedict has taken the rare step of changing Vatican law to
allow his successor to be elected early, adding to a sense of
crisis within the Roman Catholic Church.
With just three days left before Benedict becomes the first
pope in some six centuries to step down, he accepted the
resignation of Britain's only cardinal elector, Archbishop
Keith O'Brien, who was to have voted for the next pope.
O'Brien, who retains the title of cardinal, has denied
allegations that he behaved inappropriately with priests over
a period of 30 years, but said he was quitting the job of
archbishop of Edinburgh.
He could have attended the conclave despite his resignation,
but said he would stay away because he did not want media
attention to be focused on himself instead of the process of
choosing the next leader of the 1.2 billion-member Church.
O'Brien's dramatic self-exclusion came as the Vatican
continued to resist calls by some Catholics to stop other
cardinals tainted by sex scandals, such as U.S. Cardinal
Roger Mahony, from taking part.
Catholic activists have petitioned Mahony to exclude himself
from the conclave so as not to insult survivors of sexual
abuse by priests committed while he was archbishop of Los
In that post from 1985 until 2011, Mahony worked to send
priests known to be abusers out of state to shield them from
law enforcement scrutiny in the 1980s, according to church
files unsealed under a U.S. court order last month.
"O'Brien's recusal is also important as a precedent," said
Terence McKiernan, of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based
documentation centre on child abuse by priests.
"Many cardinals scheduled to join the conclave have been
involved as bishops in handling cases of clergy sexual abuse,
and some of them have done such a bad job that they too
should recuse themselves from the conclave," he said.
Benedict changed parts of a 1996 constitution issued by his
predecessor John Paul so that cardinals could begin a secret
conclave to choose a successor earlier than the 15 days after
the papacy becomes vacant, as prescribed by the previous law.
The change means that in pre-conclave meetings starting on
March 1, a day after Benedict leaves on Thursday, they can
themselves decide when to start.
Some cardinals believe a conclave, held in secret in the
Vatican's Sistine Chapel, should start sooner than March 15
in order to reduce the time in which the Church will be
without a leader at a time of crisis.
But some in the Church believe that an early conclave would
give an advantage to cardinals already in Rome and working in
the Curia, the Vatican's central administration and the focus
of accusations of ineptitude and alleged sexual scandals that
some Italian newspapers speculate in unsourced reports led
Benedict to step down. The Vatican says the reports are
The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected
by mid-March and installed before Palm Sunday on March 24 so
he can preside at Holy Week services leading to Easter.
Cardinals have begun informal consultations by phone and
email in the past two weeks since Benedict said he was
Benedict's papacy was rocked by scandals over the sexual
abuse of children by priests, most of which preceded his time
in office but came to light during it and which, as head of
the Church, he was responsible for handling.
His reign also saw Muslim anger after he linked Islam to
violence. Jews were upset over his rehabilitation of a
Holocaust denier. And, during a scandal over the Church's
business affairs, his butler was convicted of leaking his
With the Italian media speculating about conspiracies and
alleged sexual scandals inside the Vatican that they say may
have influenced his decision to resign, the pope's spokesman
said an internal report into leaked papal documents would
remain confidential and only be shown to the next pontiff.
The Vatican has accused the Italian media, some of which have
called for the "Vatileaks" report to be made public, of
spreading "false and damaging" rumours in an attempt to
influence the cardinals as they head to Rome for the
The three cardinals who prepared the report for the Vatican
met the pope on Monday.
Compiled after the arrest of Benedict's butler, who leaked
sensitive documents to the media, the report has been seen
only by the pope and the three cardinals and would be seen
only by the next pope, the Vatican said.
The butler's leaked documents told of corruption in the
Vatican, infighting over the running of its scandal-mired
bank, and painted a picture of an administration where some
clerics were more interested in their careers than serving
On Sunday, the pope, in his last appearance from his window
overlooking St Peter's Square, said his abdication was God's
will and insisted he was not "abandoning" the Church but
stepping down for health reasons.
His last public appearances include a general audience in St.
Peter's Square on Wednesday and a meeting with cardinals on
Thursday before he flies to the papal summer retreat near
The papacy will become vacant at 8pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday,