Catholic Church in the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons

VATICAN CITY The process of electing Pope Benedict XVI's successor to is turning out to be the most complex, and in many ways disputatious, of any in modern history.

As soon as Benedict announced his resignation, the Italian press erupted with tales of scandal, infighting and sexual misconduct supposedly revealed by the Church's own investigation into the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal.

A report by three cardinals appointed by the pope to look into the theft of documents by his personal butler, and their subsequent publishing by an Italian journalist, was widely reported to have contained information on purported sex scandals inside the Vatican. Lurid tales of a "gay lobby" of homosexual clerics were splashed across newspapers and on TV.

The Vatican press office went on the offensive, deriding what it termed, "a diffusion of news that is often unverified, unverifiable and actually false, with serious damage to people and institutions."

A Vatican source said the unprecedented reaction was intended "to call the bluff" of the Italian media, and in fact, there was no rebuttal from the news organizations after the Vatican's counter-punch.

The report into Vatileaks is said to run to up to 600 pages. It will be kept secret, left for Benedict's successor to deal with as he sees fit. However, the three cardinals who compiled it -- all of whom are over the age of 80 and therefore will not take part in the conclave -- may be allowed to answer specific questions about it from cardinals who will be participating.

The conclave itself is turning into far more than the traditional secret gathering of the so-called "Princes of the Church" in the ornate confines of the Sistine Chapel.

The sexual abuse scandal prompted calls from some U.S. Catholics for Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles to be excluded from participating in choosing the next pope. The cardinal has said he intends to cast his vote, in spite of the pressure. At least two other U.S. cardinals, as well as one from Ireland and a European cardinal were also cited as being men who should recuse themselves over their handling -- or mishandling -- of the priests' abuse of minors.

Then came the news that three priests and a former cleric had accused Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland of inappropriate behavior with them, three decades ago.

O'Brien denied the charges, but said in a statement released Monday that he would not participate in the conclave because he doesn't "wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me, but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his Successor."

That brings the number of voting cardinals down to 115. Shortly after the official announcement that Cardinal O'Brien had taken the unprecedented step of removing himself for personal reasons, Benedict issued an edict releasing the College of Cardinals from the obligation to wait a minimum of 15 days from the end of his papacy before starting the conclave.

No date can be set until Friday, the day after the Pope officially leaves office.

At a news briefing Monday, Vatican Press Secretary Father Tom Rosica said the meeting to decide the date for the conclave to kick off won't even begin until March 1.

"We have no other information until the cardinals decide and the general congregation, when the conclave will come," he said. And he added: "Will they announce that at the first meeting? They might not. We have to wait a few days before that happens."

If a week is a long time in politics, the last week here has shown that even a few days can be a long time in the Vatican.