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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Today is the last day of the papacy of Pope Benedict the XVI. In his final meeting with Cardinals, he pledged unconditional obedience to his successor. He relinquishes his miter and his red shoes. His fisherman's ring, which is also his official seal, will be destroyed by a special silver hammer.

I was just two weeks ago that Benedict stunned the world by announcing he would be the first pope to resign in 600 years. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that after eight years on the throne of St Peter, Benedict leaves behind a church mired in crises.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The bulletins issued by the Vatican have ranged from the lofty - how Benedict will retire to a life dedicated to prayer and study - to mundane details, such as the entourage is busy packing the pope's personal belongings and what he'll leave behind. In a sign that even the Vatican was totally unprepared for the resignation, it took two weeks to decide Benedict's new title and what he would wear.

And while the cardinals publicly praise Benedict for his courageous act, privately, many are reassessing his legacy.

JOHN THAVIS: They are sympathetic with Benedict, but they saw that, really, he was not able to push through some big items on his agenda.

POGGIOLI: John Thavis is the author of the recently published "Vatican Diaries."

THAVIS: They see Benedict as perhaps a frustrated pope, frustrated in his ambitions, frustrated in part by his own top officials. And I think that's where you're seeing some more open criticism than we ever saw before.

POGGIOLI: Benedict's papacy has been marred by crises - he angered Muslims when he quoted inflammatory remarks on Islam and violence. He offended Jews when he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist, Holocaust-denying bishop. And he was severely reprimanded by European politicians with his remarks that condoms help spread Aids.

He also failed to restore unity with Anglicans and Orthodox. The scandal that has most haunted Benedict is that of children abused by pedophile priests. Before becoming pope, as theological watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had overseen many cases of clerical sex abuse.

David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, says that Benedict has been credited with meeting with and apologizing to victims and issuing new guidelines on handling cases, but has not sanctioned one bishop for covering up abuse cases.

DAVID CLOHESSY: Pope Benedict came into office knowing more about abuse than any other Catholic official on the planet. And I think many victims and many Catholics had some real hope that he would clean house. And he clearly didn't.

POGGIOLI: The sex abuse cloud will hang over the conclave to elect the new pope. As will a confidential report on last year's embarrassing leaks of private papers that revealed corruption and turf-battles within the Vatican. Benedict has left the report for his successor's eyes only, but many cardinals are already asking to be briefed on its contents.

Massimo Franco, author of numerous books about the Vatican, says the scandals have revealed Benedict as a poor manager and victim of the powerful administrative apparatus known as the Roman Curia. He speculates on why Benedict is stepping down. In the past, he says, popes were always protected by their inner circle.

MASSIMO FRANCO: With Pope Benedict XVI we saw the reverse, we saw the pope obliged to defend his advisors who were attacked, and the outcome was that the pope was overexposed and eventually was forced to resign.

POGGIOLI: When the resignation becomes official this evening at 8:00 PM when Benedict is at the Castelgandolfo summer residence, spokesman father Tom Rosica says the Vatican enters what's known as the Sede Vacante, the Holy See becomes empty.

FATHER TOM ROSICA: And very symbolically, we will see the doors or the gates of Castelgandolfo close and the Swiss Guards will leave at that point. They leave because the Swiss Guards are assigned to protect the pope. He is no longer pope at 8 o'clock in the evening, so they are no longer protecting him.

POGGIOLI: As a retiree, Benedict's security will be ensured by Vatican police. But it's still unclear what influence the pope emeritus will wield and how two popes will co-exist inside the Vatican. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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