Catholic cardinals began talks on Monday ahead of a conclave to elect the next pope, following Benedict XVI’s historic resignation, as a British cardinal not in attendance admitted to sexual misconduct with priests.
Scotland’s Keith O’Brien recused himself last month after allegations dating back to the 1980s surfaced.
“My sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal,” he said Sunday, days after resigning his post and retiring.
A string of new scandals and allegations have emerged since Benedict became only the second pope in the Church’s 2,000-year history to step down of his own free will.
The Vatican meetings starting on Monday, known as “general congregations”, set the date for the start of the conclave and help identify candidates to be leader of the world’s 1.2 bilion Catholics.
The Vatican is now expecting 115 “cardinal electors” — cardinals aged under 80 — to attend the conclave after O’Brien opted out and an Indonesian cardinal said he was too sick to attend.
The field for next pope remains wide open, with possible candidates from every corner of the world and from both progressive and traditionalist wings of the Church.
The pre-conclave meetings, which are expected to last for most of the week, are also a way to identify what the priorities for the next pope should be.
Benedict’s eight-year pontificate was often overshadowed by Vatican intrigue and scandals in Europe and North America over sexual abuse by paedophile priests going back decades and the cover-up of those crimes by senior prelates.
Church leaders are also concerned about issues like priestly celibacy, treatment of gays, attitudes towards divorcees, the Catholic stance on contraception as well as inter-religious dialogue, particularly with Islam.
Benedict’s effort to revive faith amid rising secularism is also crucial.
“We will confront the most important issues: evangelization and the new evangelization of lands with a Christian tradition,” Colombian cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez told Italian daily Corriere della Sera on the eve of the meeting.