Pope Benedict XVI gestures as he leads his last Sunday Angelus prayer before stepping down in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Pope Benedict XVI gestures as he leads his last Sunday Angelus prayer before stepping down in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican.
Credit: Reuters

Pope Benedict spoke from his window for the last time on Sunday, telling the faithful packed into St. Peter's Square that the first papal abdication in centuries was God's will and insisting he was not "abandoning" the Church.

Four days before the 85-year-old's often troubled eight-year rule ends, new talk of scandal hit the cardinals who will choose his successor; one of them, a Scottish archbishop, had to deny a media allegation of misconduct with young priests in the 1980s.

 

With an American cardinal urged not to go to the electoral conclave due to his role in handling sexual abuse cases in the United States, and the Vatican accusing media of running smears to influence the vote, the Church faces a stormy succession.

Benedict, however, defended his shock decision to resign as dictated by his failing health; his address to tens of thousands of well-wishers was met with calls of "Viva il Papa!"

"The Lord is calling me to climb the mountain, to dedicate myself even more to prayer and meditation," the German-born pontiff said in Italian, his voice strong and carrying clearly.

"But this does not mean abandoning the Church. Actually, if God asks this of me, it is precisely because I can continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love I have shown so far," he said, adding that he would be serving the Church "in a way more in keeping with my age and my strengths".

As he spoke, two of the some 117 cardinals who are due to enter the conclave to choose his successor as leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics next month were mired in controversy.

Britain's top Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh, rejected allegations published in the Observer newspaper that he had been involved in unspecified inappropriate behavior with other priests in the past.

The paper said O'Brien, known for his outspoken views against homosexuality, had been reported to the Vatican by three priests and a former priest, who said they had come forward to demand O'Brien resign and not take part in the conclave.

"Cardinal O'Brien contests these claims and is taking legal advice," a spokesman for the 74-year-old cardinal said.

He was the second cardinal to be caught up in controversy over his attendance ahead of the conclave, where 117 "princes of the Church" under 80 will elect a new pope from their ranks.

On Saturday, Catholic activists petitioned Cardinal Roger Mahony to recuse himself from the conclave so as not to insult survivors of sexual abuse by priests committed while he was archbishop of Los Angeles.

In that post from 1985 until 2011, Mahony worked to send priests known to be abusers out of state to shield them from law enforcement scrutiny in the 1980s, according to church files unsealed under a U.S. court order last month.

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