Cardinals from around the world gathered Monday inside the Vatican for their first round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire.
Cardinals were treated like rock stars as they entered the Vatican on Monday morning, with television crews swarming around the red-capped churchmen and their handlers pushing their way through the crowds. "A Latin American Pope is possible, everything is possible!" said Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins as he entered.
The core agenda item is to set the date for the conclave and set in place procedures to prepare for it, including closing the Sistine Chapel to visitors and getting the Vatican hotel cleared out and de-bugged, lest anyone try to listen in on the secret conversations of the cardinals. But a date may not be agreed upon Monday as the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, has said the date won't be finalized until all cardinals have arrived in Rome.
The first day of discussion was again rocked by revelations of scandal, with Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien admitting that he had engaged in sexual misconduct not befitting a priest, archbishop or cardinal. O'Brien last week resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and said he wouldn't participate in the conclave after four men came forward with allegations that he had acted inappropriately with them — the first time a cardinal has stayed away from a conclave because of personal scandal.
Separately, the Vatican is still reeling from the fallout of the scandal over leaked papal documents, and the investigation by three cardinals into who was behind it. Italian news reports have been rife with unsourced reports about the contents of the cardinals' dossier.
Even if the reports are false, as the Vatican maintains, the leaks themselves confirmed a fairly high level of dysfunction within the Vatican bureaucracy, with intrigues, turf battles and allegations of corruption, nepotism and cronyism at the highest levels of the church hierarchy. In one of his last audiences before resigning, Benedict met with the three cardinals who prepared the report and decided that their dossier would remain secret. But he gave them the go-ahead to answer cardinals' questions about its contents.
Another topic facing the cardinals is the reason they're here in the first place: Benedict's resignation and its implications. His decision to end 600 years of tradition and retire rather than stay on the job until death has completely altered the concept of the papacy, and cardinals haven't shied from weighing in about the implications for the next pope.