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UPDATE: In the wake of accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned today as archbishop Edinburgh, and said he does not plan to come to Rome for the March conclave to avoid creating a media diversion during the election of a new pope.

The Vatican said yesterday that Pope Benedict has been informed about allegations that the cardinal had engaged in inappropriate sexual acts, and was deciding what to do about it.

The allegations, which date to the 1980s, came to light in newspaper reports today in Great Britain. Cardinal O’Brien was among the cardinals expected to arrive in Rome at the end of next week for Pope Benedict’s resignation and an upcoming conclave.

“The pope is informed about the problem and the issue is now in his hands,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Sunday.

Cardinal O’Brien, 74, the archbishop of Edinburgh, has denied the allegations, which were reported to the Vatican by three priests and a former priest. According to British press reports, the complainants contacted the papal nuncio in Britain the week before Pope Benedict announced his resignation.

The press reports said the allegations concerned inappropriate contact and approaches when O’Brien was a seminary rector in Aberdeen some 30 years ago.

The issue of sex abuse has already prompted criticism of U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony, after he announced he intended to come to Rome to participate in the upcoming conclave. Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, recently had limits placed on his public role in the archdiocese for failing to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

The allegations against Cardinal O’Brien are of a different nature — inappropriate sexual acts, not covering up alleged abuse — and the consequences could be different, too.

Experts I spoke with said a pope can remove a cardinal from the College of Cardinals for grave reasons, but added that in this case the cardinal has contested the accusations, and it’s unlikely that a serious investigation could be completed before papal resignation on Feb. 28.

  • John Thavis

Is crying in public a deal-breaker for a papabile?

It’s enough of an issue that veteran Vatican-watcher Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa mentioned it in an article about the whispering campaigns aimed at torpedoing a candidate’s chances in the next conclave.

He listed Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn as two papabili who have teared up in front of reporters from time to time.

But perhaps the most televised tears by a papal candidate were shed by Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle when he received his red hat from Pope Benedict last November.

Asked about it at the time, Tagle said candidly, “I cry easily.”

In an interview yesterday with the Rome daily , Tagle recalled the episode and said he had personally apologized to Pope Benedict the day after his display of emotions.

“Pope Benedict answered with some significant words: ‘No, you don’t need to apologize. We need heart in the church!” the 55-year-old cardinal said.

  • John Thavis

Among the more than 100,000 people who filled St. Peter’s Square to say goodbye to Pope Benedict today were pilgrims from Germany, including these two women who flew down to Rome for the day with a homemade banner reading: “Holy Father, we love you.”

Birgit Marschall, a 49-year-old Catholic, said she made the banner as a token of appreciation.

“I just want to say goodbye and thank him, and assure him of our prayers. I’m thankful for every word he gave us,” she said. She arrived in the square early and unfurled her banner right below the pope’s window.

Speaking in German at his noon blessing, the pope seemed to be on the same wavelength. “I thank you all for the signs of closeness and affection, and especially for your prayers,” he said.

Appearing at his final Sunday blessing, Pope Benedict referred indirectly to his retirement Feb. 28 and said he felt God was summoning him to a different kind of service in the church.

“God is calling me to `climb the mountain’ and dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this doesn’t mean abandoning the church. On the contrary, if God is asking this of me it’s precisely because I can continue to serve the church with the same dedication and love as always, but in a way more fitting to my age and my energy,” he said.

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