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'Amateur hour': Vatican conclave drama is one for the history books, experts say

A lame-duck pope. A secret dossier. Rumors of a gay cabal. A cardinal accused of "inappropriate" behavior.

The Vatican is in an uproar, and church scholars say there hasn't been this much drama surrounding a conclave since 1800, when Pope Pius VI died while being held prisoner by Napoleon.

One Vatican watcher says you have to go back to 1730 — when Pope Benedict XIII's right-hand man fled Rome in disguise amid allegations of corruption — to find a conclave buffeted by this much scandal.

"This is not a healthy situation for any kind of institution," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an expert on the Catholic Church at Georgetown University.

"It looks like amateur hour."

The conclave that will begin next month to choose Pope Benedict XVI's successor was always going to be an anomaly since it's been centuries since a sitting pontiff resigned.

The pope's historic Feb. 11 announcement has been overshadowed, however, by an extraordinary wave of revelations and accusations.

There were calls for cardinals accused of mishandling the sex-abuse crisis to abstain from voting. Then came a report that Britain's top cleric, Cardinal Keith O'Brien had been accused of bad behavior by priests, followed by his resignation on Monday.

Over the weekend, the Vatican had to deny an Italian newspaper report that Pope Benedict abdicated because an internal probe into the so-called Vatileaks mess had uncovered a network of gay priests who were being blackmailed.

Now comes the news that the pope will only let two people see the report on the document leaks — himself and his successor — despite calls for the Holy See to become more transparent.

Certainly, there have been other modern conclave controversies. 

The 1903 frontrunner, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, was vetoed by the emperor of Austria-Hungary, prompting a change in rules that allowed Catholic powers to knock down a candidate, said NBC News' Vatican expert, George Weigel.

The conclave of 1914 had cardinals from Germany and France refusing to speak to each other, and the conclave of 1939 was held against the backdrop of a world hurtling toward war.

But today's level of pre-conclave tension hasn't been seen since 1800, two years after French forces invaded Rome and carried off the pope, several experts said.

"You had a dire situation where Pope Pius VI died effectively still a prisoner of the French. The cardinals could not gather in Rome for the election and had to meet on an island off Venice," said Matthew Bunson, general editor of the Catholic Almanac.

James Weiss, a professor of church history at Boston College, sees the conclave of 1730 more analogous, because it was complicated by internal problems, not outside forces.

He said that when Pope Benedict XIII died after six years, his corrupt and powerful aide, Cardinal Niccolo Coscia, was run out of town amid allegations he looted Vatican coffers.

"The population of Rome attacked his palace and he disguised himself a washerwoman and escaped," Weiss said. Coscia managed to negotiate a return for the conclave, however.

The commotion around the upcoming conclave could have serious consequences.

The Vatileaks intrigue would appear to undermine the cardinals of the Roman Curia, the administrators of the Vatican, while the sex-scandal bombshells weaken the outsiders from dioceses around the world, Reese said.

The various crises underscore some of the Vatican's weaknesses: a lack of transparency and an allergy to change in a rapidly modernizing world with a 24-hour news cycle and exploding social media.

"This is chickens coming home to roost," Weiss said.

Church historians say the clouds hovering over the conclave show why the next pope, unlike Benedict and John Paul II before him, must make Vatican house-cleaning a priority — from streamlining a web-like bureaucracy to standardizing archaic finances.

"It's always an issue when you have an institution that thinks in terms of centuries, to bring about reforms on a turn of a dime." Bunson said,

Bunson said he thinks those reforms are within reach with the right leader, but Weiss wondered if efforts to usher in a new era aren't already being undercut by the Vatican's announcement that the Vatileaks dossier will stay under wraps.

"That means the cardinals are going into the conclave blind, not knowing who among them may have stuffed their pockets or been part of gay sexual enclaves," he said. 

Reese said moving up the date of the conclave — which the pope announced Monday he would allow — could also be antithetical to change because it gives the cardinals less time to consider outsider candidates.

"This is the most important thing these cardinals will ever do," he said. "There’s no reason to rush."

NBC News' Erin McClam contributed to this report.




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