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And at the Vatican, the College of Cardinals is readying to elect a new pope in a divisive atmosphere with no clear frontrunner, all of which makes the outcome unpredictable. The first official meetings are today. The top item will be choosing which day to start the closed-door conclave where the cardinals will actually elect the new pope.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The papal resignation has put the cardinals in an unprecedented situation in modern history.

MASSIMO FRANCO: The real mood is of shock and disappointment, this resignation de-sacralized the figure of the pope.

POGGIOLI: Massimo Franco is the author of several books about the Vatican. He says a pope cannot be treated like a company CEO.

FRANCO: If you allow the idea of resignation, it means that in the new future every pope might be a victim of a mud campaign to force him out, from inside or from outside the Vatican, and that is very destabilizing.

POGGIOLI: The cardinals are already divided over when to start the conclave. Members of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that's at the heart of numerous scandals, want it as soon as possible. Many foreign cardinals, like Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, want more time to discuss the new challenges and to get to know each other.

CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE: No matter what date we're looking at, there has to be enough time to discuss, and otherwise the discernment won't be at a point where it has to be when you go into conclave.

POGGIOLI: One of the main topics will be the state of the Curia that's responsible for all major Church decisions, from appointing bishops to annulling marriages to disciplining dissidents and pedophile priests. Last year's leak scandal exposed an administration rife with intrigue, cronyism and corruption.

GEORGE: I'm sure a priority is going to be what kind of restructuring, perhaps if necessary the Roman Curia should take because there are problems in governance right now, in the central governance of the church. There's a crisis of confidence that was made quite clear in the VatiLeaks scandal.

POGGIOLI: Leaks are not the only scandal haunting the cardinals. The worldwide sex abuse crisis is weighing heavily on their selection process. With several cardinals tainted by mismanagement of cases of sex abuse, the pool of viable candidates has been narrowed down. Casting an even darker cloud, British Cardinal Keith O'Brien, after denying last week allegations of sex abuse, on Sunday admitted and apologized for sexual misconduct.

Robert Mickens, correspondent of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, says public opinion demands that candidates be closely scrutinized as never before in history.

ROBERT MICKENS: Maybe before, people didn't dig around in popes' dirt, but they are now, and what's going to happen when we have a pope who we discover had something in his past, had a lover in his past, or accused of abuse in his past? That will really shake the foundations.

POGGIOLI: It's not clear how much the cardinals want major reform.

HANS KUNG: A lot of things really need change, and we need a wind of change.

POGGIOLI: Theologian Hans Kung is a former colleague and later antagonist of Benedict XVI. He points to the dwindling number of faithful and priests, the need for a greater women's presence in the church and revised sexual ethics. He believes Benedict's resignation has opened the way to a Vatican Spring and a reformer pope would find many allies.

KUNG: So many Catholic laypeople, religious, clergy, bishops, cardinals and perhaps even some Curia members can together dismantle the Curia and institutionalize the collegiality demanded by Vatican II.

POGGIOLI: But Robert Mickens cautions that the shadow of Benedict XVI could be very present inside the conclave.

MICKENS: How free will they feel to elect someone that might have a different vision for the church than Benedict XVI, who is still alive and will be lurking in the successor's garden? Can they elect a pope who'll be free to be his own man?

POGGIOLI: Today's schedule is heavy. The cardinals are meeting both in the morning and afternoon. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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