Unprecedented resignations and alleged sex scandals are shaking the Vatican. Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric, confirmed today his resignation as archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, saying he would not attend the conclave.
"The Holy Father has now decided that my resignation will take effect today," the 74-year-old prelate announced.
"Looking back over my years of ministry, for any good I have been able to do, I thank God. For any failures, I apologise to all whom I have offended," he added.
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O'Brien's resignation follows allegations of inappropriate conduct towards three priests and a former priest. The complaints were first reported in the British daily The Observer, and date back to the 1980s, when O'Brien was a seminarian at St Andrew's College, Drygrange.
"The pope has been informed, and the question is in his hands," Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said.
In his statement, Cardinal O'Brien, who turns 75 - the normal retirement age for bishops - on March 17, also explained his decision to skip the Pope's election.
"I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me - but rather on Pope Benedict XVI and on his successor," he said.
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This is the first time a cardinal will stay away from a conclave because of a scandal-hit reputation, according to Ambrogio Piazzoni, the vice prefect of the Vatican library.
While accepting O'Brien's resignation, Benedict XVI also issued a "Motu Poprio," a legal document which slightly changes the 1996 Vatican law ruling the Pope's election.
One rule established that conclaves cannot begin until at least 15 days after a papacy's end. This was due to the fact that popes almost always die in office.
Since Benedict announced on February 11 that he would retire on February 28, cardinals from around the world would have enough time to prepare for the conclave.
"The cardinals will be permitted to bring forward the start of the conclave, if they are all present," the papal decree said.
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The conclave will now bring together 115 "cardinal electors" representing more than 60 different countries. They will gather in secret in the Sistine Chapel until the new pope is elected.
In the past century, the longest conclave lasted five days and produced Pope Pius XI in 1922. The shortest, a day, elected Pius XII in 1939 and John Paul I in 1978.
The longest conclave ever took two years, nine months and two days and ended with the election of Gregory X on Sept. 1, 1271.
In order to avoid interminable conclaves, Benedict XVI's decree reinforced John Paul II's rules establishing that a 2/3 majority is required for a valid election, "calculated on the basis of the electors present and voting."
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If after three days no pope is elected, "one day should be dedicated to prayer, reflection and dialogue."
Then "only the two names which in the previous rounds had the highest number of votes will be considered, and the provision of a 2/3 majority of the cardinals present and voting for a valid election will remain." The two candidates would not be allowed to vote.
Benedict XVI also established that some parts of the 300-page Vatileaks report will be disclosed to the voting cardinals.
The information should be "useful to evaluate the situation and to select a new pope," Father Lombardi said.
Image: The Vatican: St. Peter's Square. Credit: Michal Osmenda/Wikimedia Commons.