Sex Scandals Threaten To Mar Selection Of Next Pope

Pope Benedict XVI announced a change to Vatican law Monday to allow his successor to be chosen sooner than expected. His resignation takes effect Thursday. But the papal succession may be overshadowed by sex scandals. Linda Wertheimer talks to Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University about recent developments.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

As Italians struggle to form a new government, another political transition is underway - inside the Vatican. Pope Benedict's historic resignation takes effect on Thursday, giving way to a papal transition that will be unlike any before. But even in the pope's final week, new sex scandals threaten to overshadow the upcoming conclave where his successor will be chosen.

Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University is kind enough to join us here in the studio and give us some perspective on what's going on. Father Reese, good morning.

FATHER THOMAS REESE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now yesterday, we learned that the most senior Catholic leader in Britain, Keith O'Brien, has resigned. The Cardinal is facing charges of unwanted sexual advances on other priests. He says he's innocent. How significant is this?

REESE: Oh, this is very significant. Not only did the archbishop resign, which was inevitable since he was going to turn 75 in March, but he also announced that he was not going to the conclave. This is extraordinary for a cardinal to do this. This is the most important thing they do in their lives and he's not going to go to the conclave. So this is absolutely extraordinary.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there are other cardinals who are dealing with sex scandals, including Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles. They also have an urge not to attend the conclave.

REESE: Well, Cardinal Mahony has not been accused of any sexual misconduct. He's been accused of not handling the...

WERTHEIMER: Legal misconduct, perhaps?

REESE: Well, I'm not a lawyer. I'll let the lawyers deal with that one.

(LAUGHTER)

REESE: If they want to charge him then they need to charge him. The problem, he did not handle the sex abuse crisis very well early in his career. In fact, very few bishops were doing a good job in the mid '80s. In the '90s, he did a much better job. In fact, he was pushing the Vatican to throw priests out of the priesthood more quickly. So it's one of those delicate questions: do you judge them by the end of his career or by the beginning of his career.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there are some pretty sensational reports emerging in the Italian press over the weekend about an alleged network of gay clerics inside the Vatican subject to blackmail because of their sexuality. The report suggested that Benedict decided to resign after reading a confidential report on all of this. What do you make of that story?

REESE: Well, you have to remember that the Italian press is like the blogosphere. They don't follow the same kind of journalistic standards that we expect in the United States. So I think you have to take it all with a grain of salt. If there's truth to it, OK, let them present the facts and let the facts lead us where it will.

WERTHEIMER: The pope's resignation takes effect on Thursday and normally there will be a 15-day waiting period before the conclave meets to select a new pope. But yesterday, Benedict changed the rules and he says he wants to speed up the process. Now, why the change? Is it important? What impact will it have?

REESE: Well, the argument is that since the - the 15-day waiting period was to allow people to get to Rome. I mean, there were some American cardinals that missed the conclave in the early part of the century - of course, they had to come by boat. So people can get to Rome a lot quicker.

I think it's a mistake. I think they should simply stick to the rules and have it 15 days afterward. This, as I said, this is the most important thing they're ever going to do. Why rush it?

WERTHEIMER: Do you think it has anything to do with scandal?

REESE: I don't - well, I don't think so really. Although I'm sure they would like to get the election over so that people stop writing these stories in the newspapers.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there've been a lot of embarrassments in recent years, and lengths that some officials went to to cover up those embarrassments. Do you think that Catholics may be concerned about how the church chooses its leader now, considering everything that we have to consider?

REESE: Well, I think that, you know, one of the questions the cardinals will have to do is to figure out, of course, who they're going to elect. In the last two conclaves, they've elected the smartest man in the room. John Paul II and Benedict, they're brilliant theologians. The question is: do you want to elect the smartest man in the room or the man who will listen to all the other smart people in the church, and who also can reform the Vatican Curia. Intellectuals are not very good at reforming bureaucracies.

WERTHEIMER: Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University. Father Reese, thank you for coming in.

REESE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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