Cardinals gather in Rome as quest for Pope begins

A poster supporting Cardinal Peter Turkson outside the Papal Basilica of St Mary in Rome. Picture: Reuters
A poster supporting Cardinal Peter Turkson outside the Papal Basilica of St Mary in Rome. Picture: Reuters
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WHEN he thanked cardinals and the faithful for their support last week he sounded like an actor accepting an Oscar.

Nothing about Pope Benedict’s retirement was normal, not least the sudden outpouring of public affection for the shy German pontiff.

Now, the door handles of the papal apartment have been sealed with red ribbon and wax, to be opened only when the 115 cardinal electors of the Catholic Church pick Benedict’s successor. And as the “princes” of the church descended on Rome this weekend, the Vatican has reverted to its usual script of scheming, secret talks and back-room deals that has characterised conclaves for hundreds of years.

With one difference. This time the field is open, compared to 2005 when cardinals were faced with the choice of either voting for or against cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Nor will there be a split into liberal and conservative camps, since Ratzinger put his conservative stamp on the college by appointing 67 of them.

What will drum up debate at pre-conclave meetings that kick off tomorrow is the scandal over infighting and corruption allegations within the Vatican which the world got a first-hand glimpse of when Benedict’s butler leaked dozens of embarrassing letters.

Three senior cardinals who wrote a secret report on backstabbing in the Vatican’s sprawling bureaucracy, and who reportedly unearthed tales of a gay lobby, secret health-club trysts and blackmail, will be quizzed at the meeting.

“We will talk about the governance of the Church and in that context there may be questions to the persons who made that report,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, with a dose of understatement.

The Vatileaks scandal looks set to split the college between cardinals who may favour an Italian pope and cardinals arriving from overseas who would like to see a non-European clean up the Vatican. After rebounding from its own abuse scandal, North America’s 11-strong contingent is reportedly looking to put Vati-leaks at the top of the agenda.

One elector who has reportedly worked on reforms to cut through Vatican red tape is cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who has pointedly recommended that the next pope comes from South America, far from the Vatican. His opinions could be shared by the Americans, with cardinal Odilo Scherer, 63, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, the continent’s strongest candidate.

Other early overseas favourites, such as Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, may fall by the wayside. Italian candidates are thick on the ground, led by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan.

What is certain is that the field will narrow before cardinals have their phones confiscated and they file into the Sistine Chapel, probably on March 11, to vote.