VATICAN CITY – In a season of startling change for the Catholic Church, the latest break with tradition was as unexpected as it was a wake-up call to the 115 men who will elect the next pope.
Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader resigned and removed himself Monday from the upcoming conclave, saying he did not want allegations that he engaged in improper conduct with priests to be a distraction during the solemn process of choosing the next leader of the church's 1.2 billion-member flock.
It was the first time a cardinal has recused himself from a conclave because of personal scandal, according to Vatican historians.
The Vatican insisted that Pope Benedict XVI accepted Cardinal Keith O'Brien's resignation purely because O'Brien was nearing the retirement age of 75 – not because of the accusations.
But O'Brien himself issued a statement Monday saying he would skip the conclave because he wanted to avoid becoming the focus of media attention at such a delicate time.
"I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me – but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor," said O'Brien, who had been archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. "However, I will pray with them and for them that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they will make the correct choice for the future good of the church."
Through his spokesman, O'Brien has contested allegations made Sunday in a British newspaper that three priests and a former priest had filed complaints to the Vatican alleging that the cardinal acted inappropriately with them.
There were no details about the behavior, and the Observer newspaper did not name the priests. It said the allegations date back to the 1980s.
The cardinal's action comes in the wake of a grassroots campaign to shame another cardinal, retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, into refraining from participating because of his role protecting sexually abusive priests.
Mahony, however, has defiantly said he would participate in the voting for the new pope.
The difference boils down to the fact that O'Brien himself was accused of improper behavior, whereas Mahony was shown to have covered up for other priests who raped and molested children. That distinction has long shielded bishops from Vatican sanction.
Several other cardinals who will elect the next pope have been accused – and some have admitted – to failing to protect children from abusive priests. If all of them were to recuse themselves for negligence, the College of Cardinals would shrink by quite a few members.
Terrence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, an online database of records on clergy abuse cases, urged other whistleblowers to come forward if they have information about other compromised cardinal electors.
"It is a public demonstration of the role that clerics with inside information can have in bringing accountability to a church where secrecy has led to a crisis of sexual misconduct," he said. "Cardinals who are tainted by the crisis cannot choose the person who will solve it."
With O'Brien's recusal and the decision of a frail Indonesian cardinal to stay home, there are expected to be 115 cardinals under age 80 who are eligible to vote in the conclave.
Separately Monday, Benedict changed the rules of the conclave, allowing cardinals to move up the start date if all of them arrive in Rome before the usual 15-day waiting period between the end of one pontificate and the start of the conclave. It was one of his last acts as pope before stepping down Thursday.
The date of the conclave's start is important because Holy Week begins March 24, and Easter Sunday is March 31. In order to have a new pope in place for the church's most solemn liturgical period, he would need to be installed by Sunday, March 17, a tight timeframe if a conclave were to start on March 15, as previous rules would have required.
Also Monday, Benedict decided that the contents of a secret investigation into the 2012 leaks of Vatican documents won't be shared with the cardinals ahead of the conclave. Benedict met Monday with the three elderly cardinals who conducted the probe and decided that "the acts of the investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope," a Vatican statement said.
Speculation has been rife in the Italian media that the three cardinals – Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi – would be authorized to share the information with fellow cardinals before the conclave. That assumed the cardinal electors would want to know details about the state of dysfunction in the Vatican bureaucracy and on any potentially compromised colleagues before possibly voting one into office.
Benedict appointed the three men last year to investigate the origins of leaks, which revealed petty wrangling, corruption, cronyism and even allegations that senior Vatican officials conspired to out a prominent Catholic newspaper editor as gay.
The pope's butler was convicted of aggravated theft in October for having stolen the papers and given them to a journalist who then published them in a blockbuster book.
The three cardinals cannot share the full contents of their investigation, but it's unclear if they could give subtle hints about potential papal candidates to the electors. The Vatican's assertion that only the pope knew the contents of the dossier was a clear message to readers of Italian newspapers, which have run several articles purporting to know the contents of the report.
O'Brien's decision to remain home rather than participate in the conclave made his the first head to roll in the remarkable two weeks since Benedict, 85, stunned the world and announced he was becoming the first pope in 600 years to resign.
Monday's action marked a dramatic end to a career that got off to a rocky start when in 2003, as a condition of being made a cardinal, O'Brien was forced to issue a public pledge to defend church teaching on homosexuality, celibacy and contraception. He was pressured to make the pledge after he had called for a "full and open discussion" on such matters.
At the time, O'Brien said he had been misunderstood and wanted to clarify his position. But it's clear now he never really changed his mind. On Friday, three days before his resignation was made public, O'Brien told the BBC that celibacy should be reconsidered since it's not based on doctrine but rather church tradition and "is not of divine origin."
It appeared to be something of a parting shot, reasserting beliefs that he had kept quiet for a decade.
At home, at O'Brien's St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh, his decision was met with shock and disbelief.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions here, and I am unhappy about that. People can make such serious charges while remaining anonymous," said David Murphy, an administrator from Edinburgh. "It's like he's been hounded out of office without a proper chance to defend himself."
But Peter Mitchell, a churchgoer from Fife, conceded that the church may have to brace itself for scandal. "These don't appear to be random allegations. We are talking about three serving priests who are being very specific, and I don't think they would lie in this way."
O'Brien said in a statement that he was in "indifferent health" and had offered his resignation last November – a statement confirmed by the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lombardi said the pope had merely acted on the resignation now as he clears up final tasks before stepping down. Usually the pope waits until after a cardinal's 75th birthday to accept a resignation. In this case, Benedict acted a few weeks early.