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Pope Benedict to Step Down February 28

Speculation is rising over who will be elected the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, a day after Pope Benedict shocked the world with a surprise announcement that he is stepping down.

The pope, a German formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told a group of cardinals Monday in a routine meeting that he will step down February 28 because his advancing age was making it difficult to carry out his duties.

Pope Benedict will be the first pope to resign from his post since the year 1415, when Pope Gregory stepped down to resolve conflicting claims over the leadership of a church that now serves some 1.2 billion followers worldwide.

Pope Benedict's health has visibly weakened in his eight years as head of the Roman Catholic Church -- one of the shortest papal terms in modern history. A pope's travel schedule can be taxing, and his brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, has told reporters the pontiff had been advised by his doctor not to make any more transatlantic trips.

Pope Benedict's rule has been tainted by a child sex abuse scandal that began long before he ascended to the papacy and only deepened as more cases of priests molesting children emerged, particularly in the U.S. and in Ireland. Last year, he faced a new scandal when his butler was found to be the source of leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican's business dealings. Pope Benedict also has been criticized for inflexibility on Church dogmas.

In contrast, he has received praise for instituting a financial watchdog over the Vatican's financial dealings and becoming the first pope to communicate with followers via social media.

Many of those followers continue to express shock at the news. In the predominantly Catholic Philippines, Archbishop Jose Palma, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the resignation was unexpected, even though he knew the pope's health was failing.

"Like many others, I am surprised, almost shocked by the resignation. Because while I know that he is really weak, I did not expect it to happen too soon."

Vatican officials are expected to select a new pope before Easter, which this year falls on March 31.

There are several contenders, but no obvious front-runner -- the same situation when Pope Benedict was elected in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II.

Pope Benedict is expected to stay at the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, until a new pontiff has been elected. Afterward, he has said he will spend the remainder of his days at a cloistered monastery in reflection and prayer.

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