Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone, left, and Angelo Sodano attend opening talks… (L'Osservatore Romano,…)
VATICAN CITY — Roman Catholic cardinals opened talks Monday on choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI but made no headway on deciding when they will shut themselves inside the Sistine Chapel to start voting for the new pontiff.
The meeting began amid speculation that alleged corruption at the Vatican will top the agenda, which is also expected to include discussion of the church's sexual abuse problem.
The papal conclave had been expected to begin March 11. But 12 of the 115 cardinals eligible to vote had yet to show up when discussions started at 9:30 a.m. Monday, and no date will be set for the conclave until they are all assembled. Four of the absent cardinals arrived during the course of the day.
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"There was no talk about when the conclave will begin," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said during a break from discussions, but he added, "We would like to be done by Holy Week so we can have a pope and get back to our dioceses." Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, March 24.
After filing into a conference hall at the Vatican, the cardinals prayed and swore an oath to keep their debates secret, a moment that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington described as "very, very solemn."
Then, 13 of them stood to give their views on how to organize the pre-conclave meetings, known as general congregations, in which cardinals will give speeches about the state of the church and meet during half-hour coffee breaks to mull their lists of papal candidates.
"We are being told you can do pretty much what you want in terms of time frame," said Wuerl, adding that "this is uncharted waters for many of us."
Three cardinals commissioned by Benedict to write a report on the leaking of his personal correspondence are expected to be questioned during the sessions. Their report is believed to document infighting and mismanagement at the Vatican.
"I would imagine that as we move along there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up," George said.
Monday's inaugural gathering opened in the wake of an admission by Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien that he had engaged in sexual misconduct; his statement came after three priests and a former priest accused him of inappropriate behavior. O'Brien, who has taken a hard line on homosexuality and publicly called same-sex marriage a "grotesque subversion," resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh last week and will not attend the conclave.
In Britain, the head of a major gay rights group, Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, was quoted as saying it was sad "that the cardinal didn't find it in him to apologize to gay people, their families and friends for the harm his vicious and cruel language caused" in the past.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi declined to say if the Vatican was investigating O'Brien, who is the first cardinal to miss a conclave because of a personal scandal.
"We can't spend all week talking about O'Brien," Lombardi said.
George said that "the personal tragedy of a cardinal will not have much influence on proceedings." But asked whether candidates for pope would be judged on their ability to tackle the church's ongoing sexual abuse scandal, he said, "It will be an important issue in the hearts and minds of many of us."
In addition to the 115 cardinal electors, the pre-conclave meetings are open to cardinals older than 80 who do not vote in the conclave.
At a news conference held yards from the Vatican, the U.S. group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests demanded the exclusion of cardinals over 80 who have been credibly accused of covering up for abusive clerics.
The group listed a number of cardinals it said should go home, starting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, who in 2010 described the abuse crisis as "petty gossip."
Sodano led the meeting of cardinals Monday, and his proposal that the group send a message of gratitude to Benedict was approved. The former pope, who officially resigned Thursday, is currently staying at the summer papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, where a magnitude 2.5 earthquake was felt Sunday. It caused no damage.
The pre-conclave meeting was briefly disrupted when a man dressed as a cardinal bluffed his way past Swiss Guards at the gate leading to the meeting hall. He was stopped by officials at the door and escorted from the tiny city-state.
Kington is a special correspondent.