Nicole Winfield and Gregory Katz
VATICAN CITY: In a season of startling change for the Catholic Church, the latest break with tradition was as unexpected as it was a wake-up call to the 115 men who will elect the next pope.
Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader resigned and removed himself Monday from the upcoming conclave, saying he did not want allegations that he engaged in improper conduct with priests to be a distraction during the solemn process of choosing the next leader of the church’s 1.2 billion-member flock.
It was the first time a cardinal has recused himself from a conclave because of personal scandal, according to Vatican historians.
The Vatican insisted that Pope Benedict XVI accepted Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation purely because O’Brien was nearing the retirement age of 75 — not because of the accusations.
But O’Brien himself issued a statement Monday saying he would skip the conclave because he wanted to avoid becoming the focus of media attention at such a delicate time.
There were no details about the behavior. The Observer newspaper said the allegations date back to the 1980s.
The cardinal’s action comes in the wake of a grass-roots campaign to shame another cardinal, retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, into refraining from participating because of his role protecting sexually abusive priests. Mahony, however, has defiantly said he would participate in the voting for the new pope.
Separately Monday, Benedict changed the rules of the conclave, allowing cardinals to move up the start date if all of them arrive in Rome before the usual 15-day waiting period between the end of one pontificate and the start of the conclave. It was one of his last acts as pope before stepping down Thursday.
The date of the conclave’s start is important because Holy Week begins March 24, and Easter Sunday is March 31. In order to have a new pope in place for the church’s most solemn liturgical period, he would need to be installed by March 17.