VATICAN CITY -- Roman Catholic cardinals opened talks Monday at the Vatican on choosing a successor to Pope Benedict XVI but made no headway on deciding when they will shut themselves into the Sistine Chapel to start voting for the new pontiff.
The conclave has been expected to commence 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.
“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 in the Vatican, the cardinals prayed and swore an oath to keep their debates secret, a Vatican spokesman said. 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 in coffee breaks to mull their lists of papal candidates.
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 four men accused him of inappropriate behavior. O’Brien resigned as archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh last week and will not attend the conclave.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi declined to say if the Vatican was investigating O’Brien, who is the first cardinal to stay away from a conclave because of a personal scandal.
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.”