Cardinal meetings kick off in Vatican ahead of papal conclave
Published Monday, March 4, 2013 5:56AM EST
Last Updated Monday, March 4, 2013 10:37PM EST
Cardinals gathered at the Vatican Monday for the first day of pre-conclave meetings, during which they will discuss the election of a new pope and the problems facing the Catholic Church.
Among the cardinals’ first tasks was taking an oath of secrecy and writing a letter to Benedict XVI, who is the first pope in 600 years to resign.
Benedict will remain at the papal residence in Italy’s Castel Gandolfo while his successor is being chosen.
The Vatican said 107 of the 115 cardinals who are eligible to vote arrived on the first day. Eight others were en route, some of them held back by previously scheduled speaking arrangements.
The cardinals’ main goal is to set the date for the conclave, which will happen under lock and key in the Sistine Chapel.
Many are speculating that the conclave will begin on or around March 11 so that the new pope can be in place by March 17, the start of Holy Week ahead of Easter.
"I cannot predict what is going to happen,” Indian Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal told reporters. “But I must say this is a spiritual act which we all, the cardinals, are privileged to be part of."
Others offered light-hearted responses to reporters’ questions. When French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois was asked what the cardinals are expecting from the conclave, he replied: “The election of a pope, what else”
But scandal loomed over the Church Monday after Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien admitted that his "sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."
O’Brien, the highest-ranking Catholic leader in Britain, resigned last week amid allegations of his inappropriate conduct with priests, dating back to the 1980s.
Vatican historians said it was the first time a cardinal withdrew from a conclave because of a personal scandal.
U.S. Cardinal Francis George called it “a terrible wound in the body of the church.”
"But there was no conversation about that and I am not sure that the personal tragedy of a particular cardinal will have much influence on the discussions,” he said.
George said the next pope will have to keep priests who molested children out of parishes.
"He obviously has to accept the universal code of the Church which is zero tolerance for anyone who has ever abused a minor child and therefore may not remain in public ministry in the church," he said. "That has to be accepted. I don't think that will be a problem."
Insiders say the cardinals will take the next few days to get to know one another and share their views before beginning the formal process of choosing their next leader.
"They don't talk about who would make a good pope -- that would be too direct,” said John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries.
“They talk about what are the priorities of the church, what are the big challenges for the church what are the directions we want to go in?"
With a report from CTV’s Todd Battis and files from The Associated Press