With papal conclave pending, tourists, media look for news

VATICAN CITY - The man from Minnesota stood off to the side of St. Peter's Square and scrolled through the pictures on his digital camera with pride. He'd captured the dome of the basilica, the papal apartments, maybe the chimney of the Sistine Chapel - all the gems that a Vatican-watching tourist requires.

Then he arrived at a true prize.

"Here's the swarm," he said, swinging the camera around to reveal an image that seemed to show three dozen journalists all but stabbing a red-haired woman with cameras and microphones. "Tell me again," he asked, "who was that woman?"

The woman was Barbara Blaine, an American who says she was abused by a Catholic priest in Toledo, when she was a child. Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of covering up sexual abuse when he was the archbishop of Boston, was celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Basilica yesterday, and she had come to protest.

As the leader of an organization called the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a prominent critic of the way the Catholic church has dealt with sexual abuse allegations, Blaine came looking for flashbulbs and microphones.

But with the election of a new pope still at least a week away and the Vatican hierarchy vowing silence until then, hundreds of journalists, tourists and other speculators about the future pope are lying in wait at the capital of Catholicism. And when Blaine arrived she had just the right food to start a frenzy - something to say.

After a live interview in CNN's rooftop studio overlooking the square, she walked out at ground level just as the clouds unloaded a blinding rainstorm. Reporters surrounded her beneath the colonnade that ring St. Peter's Square, but the circular scrum became so unstable - people tripping on the periphery, the whole mass shifting dangerously from side to side - that two Italian police officers stepped in and broke it up.

The rain had diminished by then, so the gathering moved out to a fence at the boundary of the open square, and there the precarious balancing of cameras, microphones and umbrellas soon resembled a high-wire act. Tourists arrived to photograph the spectacle, then the professional cameramen started breaking off to photograph the tourists.

"I've never seen anything like that," said the man from Minnesota, who fled without giving his name upon learning that he, too, was talking to a reporter.

It all ended quickly and bloodlessly, with Blaine moving inside to attend Mass and the journalists fading into the streets of Rome. But the fury caused by a woman whose protest amounted to handing out a few dozen leaflets illustrates just how anxious the Vatican community has become.

The conclave to elect the next pope is scheduled to begin Monday, meaning that thousands of people in the Vatican are eager for the end of something that has yet to begin. Only 115 men - the voting members of the church's College of Cardinals - could say anything to shed meaningful light on the question of who will become the next pope. And they aren't saying anything.

"It's the great mystery, like watching a play but the second act isn't written," said Jens Schroeder, a tourist from Germany who stood in line at the basilica yesterday.

The reason for the wait between the pope's funeral last week and the conclave next week is the official mourning period, which includes nine days of special Masses. Cardinal Law's Mass was one of them, and Blaine said she traveled to Rome from her Chicago home because she thinks that choosing Law for such an honored occasion sends the message that the church gives more credence to its appointed officials than to abuse victims.

"We should be focusing in the Holy Father's death, instead of Cardinal Law," Blaine said in the square yesterday, adding that she expects her protest to gather strength in the coming week.

Still, Law's Mass took place unhindered. Tourists far outnumbered the media and the police, waiting in line to enter the basilica and the church's museums, even as rain fell and the press swarmed.

Vatican officials filled in a little of the information void yesterday, releasing a video that explained some of the modern additions to the ancient procedures for selecting a pope. It included images of the hotel-like quarters the cardinals will use during the conclave, a contrast with the past when the electors remained locked inside the Sistine Chapel.

The video also shows new urns in which the cardinals will place their paper ballots and the stove in which those ballots will be burned, and it explains that bells will be rung when a new pope is selected. In the past the public was notified only by the smoke from the chapel, which changed from black to white when a new pope was chosen.