Eric J. Lyman and Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY12:20a.m. EST February 26, 2013
Blunders, scandals and mismanagement are said to plague the Vatican, leaving the Catholic Church's next pope a challenge for the ages.
A Scottish cardinal, denying allegations of 'inappropriate behavior' in British media, won't attend conclave
Some observers say church needs to modernize
Others see it returning to its roots and choosing an Italian successor to Benedict
VATICAN CITY — When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI upon becoming pope, it was a nod to sixth-century St. Benedict of Nursia, who had lived for several years in a cave in Italy.
As Pope Benedict prepares to end his papacy this week, his critics say the challenges he'll leave to his successor are the result of him living in a cave of his own.
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Benedict's intellect and successful role as a spiritual leader for the world's 1.1 billion Catholics is not in doubt, say Vatican experts and observers. But recent blunders and the poor handling of festering scandals indicate Benedict may have been far too immersed in scholarship and theology over his nearly eight-year tenure when what the church needed was a CEO.
"There was a time when the pope was a kind of king, and then, more recently, a spiritual leader," said Alistair Sear, a church historian in Rome. "Perhaps now we will see an age of the pope first and foremost as an administrator."
Just two weeks ago, Benedict, soon to turn 86, announced that he would be the first pope in 600 years to resign. In doing so, he departs a multibillion-dollar institution with hundreds of thousands of employees and a vast global network. Yet the Vatican has struggled through public relations crises over financial ineptitude, criminal allegations, bureaucratic fumbling and age-old interdepartmental conflicts.
Pope Benedict XVI leads the Ash Wednesday service at the St. Peter's Basilica on Feb.13.(Photo: Franco Origlia, Getty Images)
Among the latest developments challenging the church, and awaiting the next pontiff:
On Monday, Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he would not attend the March conclave to elect Benedict's successor as he denied charges of "inappropriate behavior" with priests. Benedict accepted O'Brien's resignation, though the Vatican said it was because the cardinal was nearing the retirement age of 75 and not because of the allegations in the British press.
On Friday, a German financier was named the new head of the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, nine months after former president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was ousted by the bank's board. The bank has been under investigation for years on allegations of money laundering, and on Jan. 1 Italy's central bank said it would no longer process ATM transactions on Vatican grounds.
Last week, Italian newspaper La Repubblica said unnamed sources leaked a secret Vatican report that among other things discussed a sex ring among gay priests in Rome. The Vatican denied the claim, but the report remains confidential. The Vatican confirmed that Benedict on Monday met with three cardinals about the report, but the press office said the contents would be sealed until the next pope is named. During the meeting, Benedict acknowledged that the investigation revealed the "limitations and imperfections" introduced by the "human factor" in "every institution."
The pope recently pardoned his personal butler, who was convicted of theft of papal documents by a Vatican tribunal in October and sentenced to serve 18 months in the Vatican police barracks. Paolo Gabriele, 46, said he gave the documents to an Italian journalist because he thought Benedict wasn't being informed of the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican and wanted it exposed.
Robert Mickens, the longtime Rome correspondent for The Tablet, a United Kingdom-based Catholic newspaper, sees many of the scandals and bureaucratic flubs as indications that the church must modernize itself.
"The church as it exists today is anachronistic," he said. "It's an absolute monarchy in the 21st century, with a bureaucracy with roots that date back to the fourth or fifth century. It must be thoroughly reformed."
Not only do the matters threaten to darken Benedict's legacy, but they dramatically increase the difficulties facing his successor.
"The recent spate of problems is going to leave the next pope with the greatest challenges since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council," Mickens said, referring to the three-year process undertaken in the mid-60s to update the way the church related to the world.
Today's Catholic Church
On Thursday at twilight, Pope Benedict XVI will board a helicopter and fly off into retirement, the first pope in centuries to relinquish the position. Within days, the cardinals of the church will huddle in the Sistine Chapel to search their own ranks for a successor in what is known as a conclave.
Benedict has dropped small hints about his successor, referring to the spiritual crisis in Europe and the need for the next pontiff to be "vigorous." But Andrea Monda, an author and frequent commentator on church affairs, said it is a mistake to think cardinals will elect a successor to Benedict based on the candidate's nationality or age.
"I think they will look at the man," Monda said. "There are all these challenges and issues, but I think when the cardinals pray about who to vote for they will consider the man and whether he is right for the job and not on some external factor and whatever message that might send."
Experts are split on how the recent developments will influence the conclave, which could start between a week and three weeks after Benedict leaves the Vatican for nearby Castel Gandolfo, home to the papal summer residence.
Before Polish native John Paul II was elected, and followed by the Bavarian Benedict, the previous 45 popes dating to Adrian VI in 1522 were Italians. Some experts suggest the church would benefit from a return to its roots.
Mickens says the Italians might be better equipped to overhaul the church's administrative apparatus, known as the powerful Roman curia, which was relatively unsupervised under Benedict. Italians dominate the curia in terms of membership numbers, and its administrative style, language and decision-making process is decidedly Italian.
"The curia can reflect the best and worst aspects of Italy, and there is a belief that it could take an Italian to understand it and reform it," Mickens says.
'Venting and vetting'
Thomas Wenski, the archbishop of Miami, insists that the 2,000-year-old church is "not a fossilized relic" and that some contemporary efficiency, maybe a few MBAs on board, wouldn't hurt.
David Gibson, author of a biography of Benedict and Vatican specialist for Religion News Service, says the Vatican appears to be in chaos, and the church crumbling, "because it's a rare time when no one is in charge."
Yet Gibson says the unusual transition might just be a blessing. Normally a pope dies in office and the cardinals have a long to-do list of funeral activities and mourning before they turn to choosing a successor. Now, however, "suddenly the pope is on his way out and people are freer to say things they couldn't say before. This is a time of open liberty to talk about where the church needs to go. It's a time of venting and vetting."
"It's high season for reporting chaos," says Terrence Tilley, chairman of the theology department for Fordham University in New York. "There have always been rumors about money, power and sex in the Vatican. The question is not whether but how much. There's a lot of smoke, right now. Is there a spark? Yes. If it's a fire, is it a small campfire or a five-alarm conflagration? No one knows."
The media, especially European newspapers, have often been accused by the church of fomenting scandal where it does not exist and giving voice to anonymous church-haters or clerics with axes to grind.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist and senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, discounts the Italian media reports as no more credible than unedited blogs. "Where's the beef? Where are the facts?"
Some Catholics, however, say the weight of recent scandals is simply too much.
"I left the church today," says real estate adviser Daniela Heimbach, 36, a native of the Bavarian city of Augsburg, in Benedict's native Germany. "I can no longer support it because of all the issues. The church is not a modern institution."
Italian Catholics say they are similarly disheartened. "I want to focus on my relationship with God, but these problems keep barging in," says Anna Maria Benevento, 51, a paralegal.
Back in the USA, one Iowa Catholic, when asked about the church, said it will weather this storm as it has others.
"I don't blame the media. This is news," says Billy Shears, 57, Iowa Catholic Radio program director in Des Moines. But "this is an institution that has survived the centuries."
Contributing: Jennifer Collins in Berlin; Jose Manuel Krogstad, The Des Moines Register. Grossman reported from McLean, Va.