Before the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican circled the wagons around cardinals ensnared in sex abuse scandals. As the church prepares to pick Benedict’s successor, those embattled cardinals increasingly find themselves under the wagon wheels.

In a wide-ranging news conference on Monday, the Vatican struck a markedly blase tone when asked about the decision by British Cardinal Keith O’Brien not to attend the conclave to elect the next pope. Hours earlier, the Vatican had accepted O’Brien’s immediate resignation over sexual harassment accusations.

Whereas the Vatican made clear in 2005 that disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was expected to report to the Sistine Chapel, on Monday it said it had nothing to do with O’Brien’s announcement.

In other words, he was on his own.

“The cardinal can say what he wants to say,” the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told a packed briefing room.

“There is a clear shift in rhetoric,” said John Allen, a leading Vatican observer and correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “In 2005, the Vatican stated that it was a clear duty for cardinals to participate in the conclave. It appears that they are now shifting the burden for making that decision onto the cardinals themselves.”

The Vatican officials focused Monday on a new amendment to Vatican rules governing papal succession. The new norms, issued by Benedict in an edict known as a Motu Proprio, stipulated that the two-thirds threshold required to elect a pope should take into account only those voting cardinals present, not the entire voting body of cardinals, which excludes those older than 80. It also put the burden on the College of Cardinals to select the opening date of the conclave.

“It can’t happen before the first of March because they won’t meet before the first of March,” Lombardi said of the cardinals. “And they probably won’t decide during their first meeting.”

But the Vatican press office again found itself in the uncomfortable position of discussing some of the church’s most painful episodes. Much of the news conference focused on secrets, past and present.

Benedict’s edict was fleshed out by Bishop Pier Luigi Celata, who explained that, while cardinals are immune from formal discipline for spilling any secrets from the conclave, other Catholics guilty of such a transgression now risk excommunication by the pope.

One reporter, noting that vote tallies of the conclave inevitably make their way into the media, asked if journalists too could be excommunicated for publishing the nominally secret results.

“A disciplinary intervention on the part of the pope” was possible, Lombardi responded.

The officials also commented on Benedict’s meeting that morning with three cardinals he had appointed to investigate a papal letter-leaking scandal that cast a shadow over his last year in office. The probe into the “VatiLeaks­” affair has prompted months of speculation, including thinly sourced recent reports in the Italian media claiming that the trio discovered a faction of gay Vatican priests who were being blackmailed by laymen with whom they had had “worldly” relations.

The Vatican’s top office, the Secretariat of State, over the weekend blasted those reports as “unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories.”

On Monday morning, Benedict dissolved the investigative committee and, according to a Vatican statement, “expressed satisfaction for the results of the investigation. . . .The Holy Father has decided that the acts of this investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope.”

While the report remains for the pope and his successor’s eyes only, the three cardinals are, the Rev. Tom Rosica said, “free to share ideas or answer questions” about their investigation, with the understanding that the information could prove germane to cardinals selecting the next pope.

Lombardi insisted that the development marked the stubborn scandal’s “conclusion.”