VATICAN CITY — The Vatican lashed out Saturday at the media for what it said has been a run of defamatory and false reports before the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, saying they were an attempt to influence the election.
Italian newspapers have been rife with unsourced reports in recent days about the contents of a secret dossier prepared for the pope by three cardinals who investigated the origins of the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
The reports have suggested the revelations in the dossier, given to Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign. The pope himself has said merely that he doesn’t have the “strength of mind and body" to carry on and would resign Feb. 28.
On Saturday, a day before Benedict’s final blessing in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican secretariat of state said the Catholic Church has for centuries insisted on the independence of its cardinals to freely elect their pope — a reference to episodes in the past when kings and emperors vetoed papal contenders or prevented cardinals from voting outright. “Today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion," the statement said. “... It is deplorable."
Still, the pope and some of his closest collaborators have recently denounced the dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, for example, on Friday criticized the “divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies" that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy.
The divisions Ravasi spoke of were exposed by the documents taken from the pope’s study by his butler and then leaked by a journalist. The documents revealed the petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
The three cardinals who investigated the theft had wide-ranging powers to interview even cardinals to get to the bottom of the dynamics within the Curia that resulted in the gravest Vatican security breach in modern times.
Benedict too has made reference to the divisions in recent days, deploring in his final Mass as pope on Ash Wednesday how the church is often “defiled" by attacks and divisions from within.
The Vatican’s attack on the media echoed its response to previous scandals, where it has tended not to address the underlying content of accusations, but has diverted attention away. During the 2010 explosion of sex abuse scandals, the Vatican accused the media of trying to attack the pope; during the 2012 leaks scandal, it accused the media of sensationalism without addressing the content of the leaked documents.
Voting for a new pope
Other Italian news reports have seized on a petition by critics who say that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles should not be allowed to attend the conclave, after the release of church files that show how he protected priests accused of sexually abusing minors. Some Vatican experts read the media reports about Mahony as an attempt to undermine any potential U.S. papal candidates.
While the battle lines inside the Vatican hierarchy and the College of Cardinals are difficult to discern, in Melloni’s view the news reports calling attention to Vatican scandals could shore up the more conservative cardinals who would lean toward electing “a sheriff, not a pope," a figure who would focus on discipline more than the pastoral aspects of the role.
On Monday, just days before his papacy ends, Benedict is expected to issue a law that would change the rules for electing a new pope, making it possible for the cardinals to start the conclave sooner than the traditional waiting period after the papacy is vacant. Some non-Italian cardinals worry that might favor those who are based at the Vatican and know one another rather over cardinals coming from around the world, Vatican experts said.