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Cardinal Keith O'Brien walks in front of Saint Peter's Square in Rome in this April 6, 2005 file photo.MAX ROSSI/Reuters

Questions are being raised about backroom tactics at the Vatican after Britain's highest-ranking cleric, in the wake of abuse allegations, decided not to attend the conclave to elect the next pope.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned his post as Archbishop of Edinburgh, it was announced on Monday, a day after The Observer newspaper reported that four men had made complaints to the Vatican's representative in Britain – and just a week after the influential cleric had stated that Pope Benedict's successor should move to change the church's law on priestly celibacy. He had also expressed his belief that the next pope should be an outsider from Africa or Asia rather than Europe or North America, a suggestion that could be seen as threatening to the influential lobby of Italian bishops and to the Curia, the powerful Vatican bureaucracy.

"This will send a shock wave through the College of Cardinals," said Thomas Reese, the Jesuit author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. "This hits at the very core of what it means to be a cardinal. The most important thing they ever do in their lives is to go to a conclave and elect a pope – and this guy is not going."

Cardinal O'Brien's withdrawal from the conclave he was obliged to attend under church law comes at the same time that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is being pressured to stay away because of his reluctance to deal directly with issues of priestly abuse early on in his tenure as archbishop.

"Are these attempts to undermine cardinals outside of Rome?" Father Reese asked.

"I think some of the cardinals will believe that there's a conspiracy to affect the outcome of the conclave," said Michael Higgins, co-author of Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads and a CTV Vatican analyst. "And when you argue that there's a conspiracy in Rome, there usually is. Rome is full of rumours, whispers and conspiracies because it's not a transparent place – things are veiled, things are secretive."

The behind-the-scenes machinations at the Vatican may seem like the stuff of lurid TV miniseries and breathless thrillers, and yet the so-called Vatileaks scandal last year – which exposed financial scandals in the Vatican bureaucracy – revealed the day-to-day struggles for power and favour at the heart of the church.

The selection of a new pope is power-brokering at the highest level, and there is no question that the 115 or so cardinals who are assembling in Rome to choose Benedict's successor have to be affected by the sudden and apparently forced disappearance of one of their own.

"There will be anxiety," Mr. Higgins said. "They'll be feeling besieged, because they know that there are people who could be seeking to discredit them."

Many cardinals who worked as local bishops and archbishops may have been too charitable to priestly colleagues accused of abuse in the past, since the Vatican hierarchy itself was slow to acknowledge the level of abuse or accept responsibility for it. Father Reese estimated that there were at least 20 other cardinal-electors in Cardinal Mahony's position, which suggests that they, too, could be targeted or marginalized in the voting process.

"If the cardinals think they shouldn't elect as pope someone who may have a revelation coming out that he didn't do a good job dealing with sex abuse, then who has clean hands here? Someone who's never been a bishop of a diocese, which is someone who works in the Roman Curia." Father Reese said.

The Curia is admittedly the kind of secretive, walled-off institution that attracts such theories, even if it is just the papal equivalent of the civil service. And it includes nominal outsiders who can't be accused of being part of the Italian-pope lobby, such as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the highly placed Canadian prefect of the Congregation of Bishops who has been tipped as a front-runner going into the conclave.

But when the Curia exerts its power and influence – as it seemed to do with Cardinal O'Brien – that could have the effect of stifling the frankness of conversations about who should be the next pope. Because Benedict has accelerated the process of choosing his successor, there is already less time than usual for the discussions that set the agenda and winnow down the candidates for the papal election. A lack of openness makes it harder to entertain new ideas and challenge the Vatican's status quo.

While sex-abuse issues dominate media coverage, the primary concern for the cardinals assembling for the conclave, Mr. Higgins said, is to clean house at the Vatican and overcome the culture of infighting. But cardinals aren't like politicians who can profit from populist attacks on the centre of power.

"Popes don't run against the Curia," he said. "So they have to figure out a way to reform the Curia without telling the Curia in advance what they're going to do."


Outspoken Cardinal

Cardinal Keith O'Brien had sparked more than his fair share of controversy before stepping down as Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh on Monday and announcing he wouldn't take part in the conclave to elect the next pope.

Known for his outspoken stands on abortion, same-sex marriage and flip-flopping on priestly celibacy, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic leader raised eyebrows even before he was appointed a cardinal in 2003.

Here are some of his statements:

In recent years he has taken a hard-line position against same-sex unions. Last year, he lobbied against Scotland's plans to legalize gay marriage.

"All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father. … It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be," the cardinal wrote in a March, 2012, Daily Telegraph article.

Cardinal O'Brien had also waded into the debate on abortion, causing a stir in 2007 when he urged voters to reject political candidates who defend what he called a "social evil" and "unspeakable crime."

He has compared the abortion rate to the Dunblane massacre – the 1996 shooting in Scotland that killed more than a dozen schoolchildren.

"We are killing – in our country – the equivalent of a classroom of kids every single day," the BBC quoted him as saying.

Shortly after he was named cardinal in 2003, Cardinal O'Brien made an unusual public pledge to defend Roman Catholic Church teaching after he indicated there should be more open discussion on issues such as the requirement of celibacy for priests and the church's contraception ban.

The cardinal largely kept those views to himself in the past decade, although he reiterated them last week in an interview with the BBC in which he indicated he was open to priests marrying.

"When I was a young boy, the priest didn't get married and that was it," he said. "I would be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should get married."

The Associated Press

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