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Church scandals likely to top agenda at 'unprecedented' meeting of popes

The newly elected pope met this morning with the cardinals who appointed him less than 48 hours ago, reportedly refusing to deliver the homily prepared for him in favor of speaking to them off the cuff. NBC's Natalie Morales reports.

VATICAN CITY -- It will be an unprecedented meeting of men and minds, a conversation almost without parallel.

When Pope Francis meets the pope emeritus, as is expected perhaps as soon as Friday, he will become the first pontiff in modern history to sit down with his predecessor.

What they will discuss isn’t known, and the meeting is expected to be in private. It will be neither a ceremonial transfer of power, nor a formal audience.

“Once again we are in uncharted territory,” said priest, author and NBC News contributor Father John Bartunek. “It’s unprecedented.”

Top of the agenda is likely to the huge task facing the Argentine, who was elected pope in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on Wednesday.

Sex abuse scandals, divisions with the church hierarchy and the opaque transactions of the Vatican’s in-house bank are among the problems that proved too much for the ailing Pope Benedict XVI, who on Feb. 28 became the first pontiff to leave office alive in 600 years.

Dmitry Lovetsky / Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

Cardinals from around the world gathered in the Vatican to elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church following then-Pope Benedict XVI's resignation. On the second day of the conclave, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, taking on the name Pope Francis.

Pope Gregory XII’s forced resignation in 1415, part of a wider move to end a church schism, was followed by retirement in obscurity. The papal seat remained vacant until after his death.

“None of us can imagine what they will discuss,” NBC News Vatican analyst George Weigel said.  

Vatican officials have not confirmed the timing of Pope Francis’ visit to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence that is the temporary home of the pope emeritus while his retirement quarters in the Vatican are refurbished.

New York's Cardinal Tim Dolan told reporters that the event would take place Thursday, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi later said the exact timing of event had yet to be decided.

The pair spoke on the telephone after Francis was elected, Lombardi said.

The event has echoes in the White House meetings organized by outgoing U.S. presidents for their successors not all of which have been particularly cordial. Time magazine once described such occasions as “act of patriotism and perhaps pity from men who, knowing what the job entails, are uniquely positioned to help.” President George W. Bush scribbled a note to Barack Obama before leaving the Oval Office in 2009.

There is also the example of British finance minister Liam Byrne, who left a letter for his successor following the 2010 election amid the global financial crisis. It read: "Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards - and good luck!"

But unlike in politics or boardroom power struggles, these spiritual leaders have never been formal adversaries.

 “This is different – these are men who have known each other for 30 years,” Weige saidl.

Some Catholic pilgrims venturing to Rome for its many religious sites had the luck to catch the election of Pope Francis along the way.

There could well be discussion of the secret report into alleged corruption, some of which was exposed by the 2010 ‘Vatileaks’ revelations.

Pope Benedict commissioned three retired and independent cardinals to investigate the background to the leaks and they presented him with a report late last year.

The Vatican has since denied various reports about the cardinals' dossier, including suggestions of a gay subculture in the Vatican.

“The subject of the report may come up,” Bartunek said. “I suspect it might come up if Pope Francis asks. Pope Benedict, the pope emeritus, may want to pass on information but I think he has made it clear he wants a clean break from leadership of the church.”

The Vatileaks scandal centered on papal documents that were leaked to an Italian journalist by Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s former butler, who was later pardoned.

In the documents, a picture emerged of the Vatican as an organization ridden with intrigue and Benedict as a leader undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was once touted as a possible candidate for the papacy.

“I think it is very unlikely Benedict would offer advice,” Weigel said. “He will not want to be seen as someone who is trying to influence things.

“He has made it clear: ‘I’m out of here’. I think advice would be passed on if it was solicited, but otherwise no.”

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The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

Pope Francis may need some advice dealing with the office politics of the Roman curia, the church leadership.

Evidence of divisions within its ranks was present in Italian newspapers on Friday, with multiple reports that the 76-year-old Argentine had received backing from cardinals determined to prevent Italian cardinals, entrenched in church bureaucracy, from assuming the papacy.

La Repubblica reported that the last cardinals to rally for Bergoglio during the supposedly secret ballots were the supporters of Cardinal Bertone, who in the end endorsed him on an “anyone but Scola” basis.

Related:

Trading in the bus for a butler: The new pope's new lifestyle 

Pope's to-do list: 7 biggest challenges facing Francis

Full coverage of Pope Francis from NBC News

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