Successor to Pope Benedict - Talks by Catholic cardinals to choose a successor to Pope Benedict began, Monday, at the Vatican but the choice of a date when they would shut themselves into the Sistine Chapel to start voting for the new pontiff was delayed to allow more priests to arrive.
The conclave is expected to commence March 11. However, 12 of the 115 eligible cardinals expected to vote have not shown up at press time.
Meanwhile, those expecting a new Catholic Pontiff to be elected urgently may have to wait for couple of days longer as the issue is one of the last items on the agenda of 150 cardinals, who converged on the Vatican, yesterday, for the first pre-conclave meeting since Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI stepped down last Thursday.
Faced with a heap of scandals, including sexual misconduct and child abuse among the clergy, the cardinals have a lot of issues on their plate aside electing a new pope.
While all cardinals are expected to partake in deliberating on the challenges facing the church, only 115 cardinals, who are under 80 years, will elect Benedict's successor.
During the pre-conclave meetings, the cardinals will set a date for their conclave to choose a new pope but before they get to that, there are plenty of other businesses to discuss.
The cardinals said they have so much hard talking to do, many say these discussions could take a week or longer before they are ready to move to the Sistine Chapel to begin voting on a new pope.
The meeting is coming as Cardinal Keith O'Brien, a top Scottish cardinal who amid sexual abuse allegations, issued an apology yesterday and said there had been times his sexual conduct 'has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.'
At the appointed hour yesterday, the cardinals began to emerge from the nooks and crannies of the Vatican for the pre-conclave meeting. Some came in groups, some came by taxi and others by private car and minibuses.
They are not in Vatican City at this stage to vote on a new pope, but to discuss the many problems facing the1.2 billion Catholic faithful, from the ongoing child abuse scandal to financial mismanagement.
Chicago Cardinal, Francis George, said the church has obvious troubles it cannot avoid. There are questions on how much of a role the scandals will play in the discussions now and whether or not they have essentially usurped the intended aim of these initial meetings.
'Scandals won't affect deliberations'
But Cardinal George insists the intended aims have not been usurped. 'I don't think they've been usurped, but they do create context for our discussion. We follow the press, sometimes happily and sometimes no,' he said.
With the papal election so wide open this time, people hang on every word of the cardinals-- and there are few words. The unwritten rule in the Vatican is, 'never say you want the job.' And if you find your name circulating on lists of potential candidates, say you're unworthy.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet is seen by many as a compromise contender, but he knows what often happens to favourites in the conclave.
'There is this famous saying, the one that gets in as pope, gets out as cardinal,' he told Canadian television.
'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.
A date for the conclave, according to the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, won't be finalised until all cardinals have arrived in Rome.
Cardinal O'Brien apologises
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.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien had been Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader until he resigned last Monday from his position as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, a departure prompted by a newspaper report about unnamed priests' allegations that he acted inappropriately toward them.
O'Brien, 74, resigned last week following published reports that he made unwanted sexual advances toward four priests in Scotland in the 1980s. The cardinal initially denied the claims, but said last week he would not participate in the conclave to choose Benedict's successor because the allegations were a distraction.
However, O'Brien reversed course yesterday, issuing a statement asking for forgiveness. He said: 'In recent days certain allegations which have been made against me have become public. Initially, their anonymous and non-specific nature led me to contest them.
'However, I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal. To those I have offended, I apologise and ask forgiveness.'
The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected next week and officially installed several days later so he can preside over the Holy Week ceremonies starting with Palm Sunday on March 24 and culminating in Easter the following Sunday.
'The pope Catholics need'
High on the agenda at the general congregations will be the daunting challenges that will face the next pontiff, including the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Church and last year's Vatileaks scandal, which exposed corruption and rivalries in the Vatican's bureaucracy.
'We need a man of governance, by that I mean a man who is able, with the people he chooses to help him in an intimate way, to govern the Church,' Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster in London, told BBC radio.
'Among the things we will be talking about out here are precisely the need in looking for a new pope for these failings that have happened again to be treated, to be faced strongly,'he added.
The cardinals are expected to hold one or two meetings a day. The Vatican seems keen to have only a week of preliminary talks so the 115 'cardinal electors' can enter the Sistine Chapel for the conclave next week. The exact date for its start has not been decided.
'We have meetings all this week to get to know each other better and consider the situations that we face,' said Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris as he entered. He said he could not say at this stage 'who will be the best one to respond to them.'
Cardinals expect to be briefed on a secret report to the pope on the problems highlighted by the Vatileaks scandal, when documents, which alleged corruption in the Vatican and infighting over the running of its bank, were leaked to the media.
By Clifford Ndujihe With Agency Report