– By JEFFREY DONOVAN
PRAGUE – Britian’s most senior Catholic cleric has resigned amid allegations he behaved inappropriately toward priests in the 1980s, casting a shadow over Pope Benedict XVI’s final days in power before retiring on Thursday.
The 85-year-old Benedict, the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, has seen his last days as head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics dominated by questions over clerical sex abuse and Italian media reports of a secret Vatican dossier on the leaking of papal documents.
In the latest case, the pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien as archbishop of Edinburgh and St. Andrews effective Monday, the Vatican said. While Britain’s top Catholic said in a statement that he resigned on Nov. 13 due to age and health, the Observer newspaper said that four priests had reported him to the Vatican earlier this month for behavior dating back 30 years. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The Vatican is struggling to manage its message before next month’s secret conclave to elect the next pope, which will take place in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s fresco of God giving life to Adam. It’s also facing questions over Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who’s insisted that he’ll attend the conclave even after U.S. court documents showed he helped cover up sex abuse by more than 120 priests. O’Brien has said he won’t go to Rome.
If O’Brien and Mahony “love the church, they should stay home,” David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, said in an emailed statement. “Youngsters are safe when those who commit or conceal abuses are publicly punished, not when they’re allowed to quietly and voluntarily step aside.”
In a rare public rebuke, the Vatican lashed out at the media over the weekend, accusing journalists of “widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories” that amounted to an attempt “to exert pressure” on the cardinals who will gather for the conclave.
Last week, Italian magazine Panorama and daily La Repubblica reported the pope had decided to resign in December after receiving the secret dossier, which was the result of a Vatican probe into last year’s leaks case that led to the arrest of the pope’s butler, later pardoned by Benedict.
The document detailed an alleged network of sex and graft in the Vatican and suggested some prelates’ conduct had made them vulnerable to blackmail, according to the media reports, which cited unidentified people close to the three cardinals assigned by the pope to head up the investigation.
Benedict announced his intention to step down on Feb. 11, saying he lacked the strength to carry on. While he’s spoken of “divisions” in the church and its “sometimes disfigured face” recently, he eschewed such comments yesterday. In his penultimate public appearance, he told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square he’ll remain as dedicated as ever in retirement through prayer, which is “more suitable to my age and strength.”
A day after the Feb. 21 Repubblica report, Benedict transferred a top Holy See official whose name had appeared in the article. Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, who as Foreign Ministry undersecretary had played a key role in efforts to improve financial transparency at the Vatican, was named ambassador to Colombia.
Balestrero’s transfer had been in the works a long time and had nothing to do with the media reports or leaks probe, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters after a Feb. 22 briefing at the Vatican. Lombardi also said that the Italian media reports “did not correspond to reality.”
The scandal known as Vatileaks centered on papal documents that were passed to an Italian journalist by Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s former butler. The pope pardoned Gabriele last month after he had been convicted of theft by a Vatican tribunal and sentenced to 18 months in a Vatican jail.
The leaked texts formed the backbone of a book portraying the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and Benedict as a leader undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, once touted as a possible candidate for the papacy. Gabriele indicated that he had leaked the documents to protect the pope and expose “evil and corruption” in the Vatican.
“There is a growing feeling among the Catholic faithful that the best way to ensure that such undue pressure” on the cardinals is not exerted “is for more of the truth about the ‘Vatileaks’ affair, and the results of the investigation of the three cardinals into that affair, to come out,” Robert Moynihan, editor of the conservative U.S. magazine Inside the Vatican, said in an emailed comment to subscribers.
The pope met Monday with the three cardinals who led the probe, thanking them for their work, the Vatican press office said in a statement. While the dossier will remain secret, the three cardinals may inform their counterparts on its contents before the conclave to help them “evaluate the situation and choose a new pope,” Lombardi said at a briefing today.
Also Monday, the pope issued a decree to allow the cardinals to bring forward the start of the conclave, meaning the gathering could begin as soon as early March. Previously, it had been expected to kick off between March 10 and March 15.
Benedict will hold a general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Feb. 27. The next day he will address cardinals who will elect his successor, before flying off by helicopter to his summer residence in the hills south of Rome. Two months later, he is due to return to live in a convent within the Vatican walls.
Speculation that a frail Benedict has struggled to stem intrigue has been fueled by his own words. In his final address on Feb. 23 to the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, the pope lamented the “evil, suffering and corruption” that has defaced the church.