The Vatican yesterday hit back at Italian media reports of intrigue, corruption and blackmail among top prelates, or high-ranking clergy, saying they were aimed at pressuring cardinals ahead of their vote to elect a successor to Pope Benedict, who resigns next week.
The Vatican's Secretariat of State - effectively the central administration of the Catholic Church - took the highly unusual step of issuing a formal statement condemning "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories".
It said the atmosphere recalled past centuries when foreign states would try, "following a political or worldly logic", to influence the outcome of conclaves - the traditional meetings of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel to elect popes.
"If in the past the so-called powers, ie states, exerted pressures on the election of the pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion," the Secretariat of State said.
It said recent media reports were "deplorable" and "cause serious damage to persons and institutions", adding that they did not capture "the spiritual aspect of the moment the church is living".
The pope last year appointed three cardinals to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the Roman Curia, the Vatican hierarchy, in parallel with a police inquiry into a scandal known as "Vatileaks".
Benedict's butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested, convicted and later pardoned by the pope for leaking confidential documents to the press, but suspicions linger that more people were involved.
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said on Thursday that the cardinals' report contained claims of corruption and of blackmail attempts against gay Vatican clergy, and favouritism based on gay relationships. They said the report may have influenced the pope's shock decision to resign.