Benedict XVI Retires As Pope Today, Final Papal Audience {PICTURES}

When night falls Thursday over Vatican City, there will be no pope in residence.
After nearly eight tumultuous years at the head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Benedict XVI has made the almost unprecedented decision to stand down.

That resignation, which takes effect at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET), opens up the prospect of unforeseen opportunities and challenges for the Roman Catholic Church.

As Benedict closes the door behind him, many are wondering whether a new pontiff will choose to lead the church in a different direction -- and can lift it out of the mire of scandal that has bogged down this pope's time in office.

Even as Benedict's final week began, Vatican officials were trying to swat down unsavory claims by Italian publications of an episode involving gay priests, male prostitutes and blackmail. Then the news broke that Benedict had moved up the resignation of a Scottish archbishop linked over the weekend by a British newspaper to inappropriate relationships with priests.

Last year, leaks of secret documents from the pope's private apartment -- which revealed claims of corruption within the Vatican -- prompted a high-profile trial of his butler and a behind-doors investigation by three cardinals. Their report, its contents known so far only to Benedict, will be handed to his successor to deal with, the Vatican said.

At the same time, the church faces continued anger about what many see as its failure to deal with child sex abuse by priests.

So, when Benedict announced on February 11 that he would step down, becoming the first pontiff to leave the job alive in 598 years, there was inevitable speculation that his move was in some way linked to the brewing scandals.

The danger for the Vatican is that the furor risks overshadowing what others see as Benedict's real legacy to the church: his teaching and writings, including three papal encyclicals.

Proof of the Vatican's irritation came with a stinging statement Saturday complaining of "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," even suggesting the media is trying to influence the election of the next pope.

The constant buffeting by scandal will doubtless also have taken a toll on an 85-year-old man whose interests lie in scholarly study and prayer rather than damage control.

Benedict suggested as much at his final general audience Wednesday, when in front of cheering crowds in St. Peter's Square he spoke of steering the church through sometimes choppy waters.

There had been "many days of sunshine," he said, but also "times when the water was rough ... and the Lord seemed to sleep."

Putting scandal aside, the pope's last day in office has been carefully mapped out by Vatican aides who've had to make up the rules over the past two weeks.
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