'Vatileaks' concern as pre-conclave talks begin

Catholic cardinals on Monday pressed for more information about the "Vatileaks" scandal as a series of Vatican meetings got under way to prepare for a conclave to elect a new pope after Benedict XVI's sudden resignation.

"If we're going to make a good decision, I'm sure we'll have to have some information on that," South African cardinal Wilfrid Napier told reporters on the sidelines of the closed-door meetings.

Asked whether there would have to be a reform of the Roman Curia, the central government of the Catholic Church, Napier said: "That naturally is going to come into the picture as well."

French cardinal Philippe Barbarin said: "We want to know what's going on inside the Vatican, which has been a bit knocked about in recent years."

Hundreds of confidential papal documents alleging instances of corruption and intrigue in the administration of the Vatican were leaked to the press last year, causing huge embarrassment.

Benedict's personal butler was convicted in the case but some Vatican watchers say there may have been a wider conspiracy and an inquiry by three cardinals into the affair has been kept secret.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi implied there would be no general discussion on "Vatileaks", saying cardinals could ask fellow cardinals in private "for any information they believe useful."

Spanish cardinal Carlos Amigo Vallejo however played down wider implications from the scandal.

"I was a missionary bishop for a long time and I thought of those small communities in North Africa. I don't think they care a lot about our little internal problems," he said.

-- 'As much time as we need' --

The Vatican meetings will set the date for the start of the conclave later this month and help identify cardinals who could become the next leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

"We're going to take as much time as we need to think about what sort of pope the Church needs now," French cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois said.

"I'd be keen to have a polyglot, a man of faith, a man of dialogue.... The new pope will certainly have to confront problems within the Curia."

At the first meeting, the cardinals took turns to step up and swear, with their hand on the Bible and on pain of excommunication, that they will not reveal any secrets regarding the election of the pope -- though they can speak publicly in general terms about what is discussed.

The oath-taking took up most of the morning.

The gatherings are expected to last all week and are also a rare chance for all the world's cardinals to get together and discuss the many different challenges facing the Catholic Church.

Benedict's eight-year pontificate was often overshadowed by Vatican intrigue and scandals in Europe and North America over sexual abuse by paedophile priests going back decades, and the cover-up of those crimes by senior prelates.

"There's a deep-seated conviction that the sex abuse scandal has to be continually addressed, not just to be sure that it doesn't happen again, but also because there are still victims, suffering and wounded: and the next pope has to be aware of this," said US cardinal Francis George.

A total of 115 "cardinal electors" -- cardinals aged under 80 -- are expected at the conclave after Britain's Keith O'Brien opted out due to allegations of sexual misconduct with priests and an Indonesian cardinal said he was too sick.

As the first talks began, a man dressed up in fake ecclesiastical robes, pretending to be a bishop, tried to sneak in and had to be escorted out by Swiss Guards.

Wearing a purple scarf around his waist similar to the sashes worn by Catholic prelates, the man shook hands and chatted with cardinals, and opined to journalists on the sex abuse scandal, before being removed.

The field for next pope remains wide open after Benedict became only the second pontiff to step down by choice in the Church's 2,000-year history and the first to do so since the Middle Ages.

Indian cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, said: "We will work for the well-being not only of the Church but of the whole world. You'll have to wait and see."

No date has yet been set for the election of the Church's 266th pope, although Italian media have mentioned next Monday, March 11 as a possibility.

Among the leading candidates are Italian cardinal Angelo Scola, a big promoter of inter-religious dialogue, and Austrian progressive Christoph Schoenborn, a former student of Benedict's.

US cardinal Sean O'Malley, who cracked down on abuse in the Boston archdiocese where the scandals began to emerge, and Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, are also seen as possibilities.

In the Americas, Canadian Quebecois cardinal Marc Ouellet, a conservative with ties to Latin America, is also highly rated, as is Brazilian cardinal and Sao Paulo archbishop Odilo Scherer.

In Africa, Ghana's Peter Turkson, Guinea's Robert Sarah and Napier are also seen as possibilities.

For Asia, Manila archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, a 55-year-old theologian and pastor is very popular.