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Benedict XVI moves for a smooth papal transition

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Pope Benedict XVI signed several decrees Monday to ensure a swift and smooth election of a successor without hint of a brewing scandal, as the most senior cardinals in Britain and the U.S. wrestled with their personal involvements in the Roman Catholic Church's decade-old sex scandal.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, resigned his post Monday and announced that he would not attend the Vatican City conclave to elect a new pope, saying his presence would be a distraction. In contrast Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the senior U.S. prelate, ignored calls Monday for a similar action and blogged about being the object of persecution.

While Cardinal O'Brien becomes the second Catholic cardinal to announce he will not be in Rome to discern Benedict's successor, he is the first to do so under the cloud of the sex-abuse scandal.

"I also ask God's blessing on my brother Cardinals who will soon gather in Rome to elect his successor. I will not join them for this Conclave in person. I do not wish media attention in Rome to be focused on me," Cardinal O'Brien said in his resignation statement.

Vatican historians told reporters in Rome that no previous cardinal had ever recused himself from a conclave in which he was eligible to participate because of personal scandal. Benedict's resignation takes effect Thursday, and cardinals from around the world are gathering in Rome.

In one decree, Benedict ensured that the results of a Vatican investigation of leaked documents will remain secret for now.

The probe of leaks from 2012 purporting to reveal corruption, cronyism and charges of sexual misconduct will not become officially known to the College of Cardinals, as some Vatican watchers had hoped would happen with an eye to preventing the election of a cardinal who may be compromised.

Benedict met Monday with the three men who conducted the investigation -- Cardinals Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi; all past age 80 and ineligible to vote in the conclave.

According to a Vatican statement, "the acts of the investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope." The three men may not reveal the contents of the investigation until given instructions by the new pope.

Benedict also squelched any possible move to deny Cardinal Mahony or anyone else the right to vote, decreeing that "no Cardinal elector can be excluded from active or passive voice in the election of the Supreme Pontiff, for any reason or pretext."

Both Cardinal Mahony and Cardinal O'Brien were hit at the weekend with the sex scandal, which has roiled the church for more than a decade.

The American spent more than three hours answering questions under oath about his handling of clergy sex abuse cases; the Scot was hit by reports in a British newspaper that he had personally engaged in sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests under hits tutelage.

Cardinal O'Brien, who would have been the only voting-eligible British cardinal at the conclave, disputed the charges made in the Observer.

According to the British newspaper, four men -- three Scottish priests and a former seminarian -- said Cardinal O'Brien had committed acts against them, though the article did not explicitly elaborate or name the men.

"It was assumed I left the priesthood to get married. I did not. I left to preserve my integrity," the former seminarian said.

Terrence McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, applauded the four Scottish men's actions and said others need to do the same.

"It is a public demonstration of the role that clerics with inside information can have in bringing accountability to a church where secrecy has led to a crisis of sexual misconduct," he told The Associated Press. "Cardinals who are tainted by the crisis cannot choose the person who will solve it."

While some liberal Catholic groups, abuse-victim networks and several Italian press outlets have demanded that Cardinal Mahony, who turns 77 this week, resign or at least stay away from picking the next pope, he cast himself via social media Monday as the victim of pharisaical stone-throwers.

Cardinal Mahony was stripped of all public or administrative duties in January by his successor as leader of the Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose Gomez, who said the conduct by the cardinal and others at the head of America's largest archdiocese, was "terribly sad and evil" and there was "no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children."

Cardinal Mahony wrote on his personal blog that he "can't recall a time such as now when people tend to be so judgmental and even self-righteous, so quick to accuse, judge and condemn. And often with scant real facts and information. Because of news broadcasts now 24/7 there is little or no fact checking; no in-depth analysis; no context or history given. Rather, everything gets reported as 'news' regardless of the basis for the item being reported -- and passed on by countless other news outlets."

Cardinal Mahony is the longest-serving U.S. cardinal and thus by ceremonial custom will head the American delegation at the Vatican.

Benedict also issued a decree Monday that will speed the election of his successor, letting cardinals start the conclave early if they all arrive in Rome, instead of waiting the required 15 days after the end of a pope's reign.

Vatican officials have said Benedict resigned suddenly in the hope that the Catholic Church could finish the process of electing a new earthly leader during the Lent season and have a pope in place before Holy Week, which this year begins with Palm Sunday on March 24 and runs through Easter weekend.

If the conclave could not start before March 15, as previous rules required, the College of Cardinals would be operating with a tight window.

The absences of Cardinal O'Brien and Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Indonesia would mean an expected 115 cardinals younger than 80 will attend and be eligible to vote.

Cardinal Darmaatmadja, the archbishop emeritus of Jakarta, cited illness as preventing his presence at the conclave. There are no public charges of wrongdoing against him.

Cardinal O'Brien submitted his resignation months ago, per custom for Catholic bishops, set to take effect upon his 75th birthday on March 17. But Benedict accepted his resignation effective immediately. Bishops who are also members of the College of Cardinals retain their voting privilege until their 80th birthday and can become pope after 75 -- Benedict himself became pope at 78.

"Darmaatmadja and O'Brien have declared their intention not to enter the conclave. There is no reason not to think that those are anything other than free and final choices; the pope has acknowledged both declarations," canon lawyer Ed Peters wrote on his blog In the Light of the Law. "It would be unreasonable to wait up to two weeks, therefore, for grown men who have publicly declared their intention to decline appearing, to determine whether they will in fact not appear. Therefore the conclave can start early."

The Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters in Rome that the conclave date will remain uncertain until preparation meetings begin Friday, the day after Benedict's resignation takes effect.

Other decrees Benedict issued Monday, likely to be his last official acts as head of the world's largest religious organization, modifies some other church laws related to the "sede vacante" period between the end of one papacy and the beginning of another.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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