Pope Benedict XVI is less than one week away from beginning his retirement at the Castel Gandolfo, but his final days as head of the Catholic church don't look like they're going to be quiet ones. Unsourced reports coming out of Italy suggest that the pope decided to call it quits not because of his old age but instead to avoid the fallout that could come from a secret 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals he tapped to look into last year's leak of confidential papers stolen from his desk.
Those papers, widely known as the "VatiLeaks," raised questions of financial impropriety and corruption at the Vatican. The investigation that followed, however, may prove even more uncomfortable for church officials.
The secret dossier allegedly details a wide range of infighting among various factions in the Vatican's governing body, known as the Curia. But the headline-ready takeaway from today's report from La Repubblica concerns the existence of one faction in particular, a network of gay church officials. Just in case that weren't enough to pique international interest, the Italian newspaper also reports that some of said officials had been blackmailed by outsiders. According to the report, the pope got his first look at the dossier—"two folders hard-bound in red" with the header "pontifical secret"—on Dec. 17, and decided that same day to retire.
Now's a good time to take a step back and offer a few disclaimers. For starters, the Vatican has repeatedly dismissed the reports as baseless. The story from La Repubblica that is driving the allegations is unsourced, so it's difficult to tell how much stock to put into the whole thing. (There's also the fact that, it being an Italian-language paper, there's always a chance of some of the details getting lost in translation.) Still, it appears as though at least one other Italian newspaper, the weekly Panorama, has a similar report—although its unnamed sources could very well be the same as La Repubblica's. A third Italian paper, Corriere della Sera, alluded to the existence of the secret dossier soon after Benedict announced his resignation earlier this month, describing its contents as "disturbing" but providing few details.
La Repubblica, which has the largest circulation among Italy's general-interest dailies, promised that today's report would be the first of a series on the topic, so it would appear as though we may have more information soon. Here's the Sydney Morning Herald with a translation of a few relevant details from today's report*:
The cardinals were said to have uncovered an underground gay network, whose members organise sexual meetings in several venues in Rome and Vatican City, leaving them prone to blackmail. The secret report also delves into suspect dealings at the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), the Vatican's bank, where a new chairman was appointed last week after a nine-month vacancy, La Repubblica said, without going into details.
The newspaper said Benedict would personally hand the confidential files to his successor, with the hope he will be "strong, young and holy" enough to take the necessary action.
And here's the Guardian with a quick refresher on some of the Vatican's recent history when it comes to homosexuality:
In 2007 a senior official was suspended from the congregation, or department, for the priesthood, after he was filmed in a "sting" organised by an Italian television programme while apparently making sexual overtures to a younger man. In 2010 a chorister was dismissed for allegedly procuring male prostitutes for a papal gentleman-in-waiting. A few months later a weekly news magazine used hidden cameras to record priests visiting gay clubs and bars and having sex.
The Vatican does not condemn homosexuals. But it teaches that gay sex is "intrinsically disordered". Pope Benedict has barred sexually active gay men from studying for the priesthood.
Given the unsourced nature of the Italian reports, many U.S. outlets have been understandably cautious in reporting the story. But speculation on this side of the Atlantic began to heat up somewhat after the Vatican announced today that the pope had decided to transfer a top Vatican official to Colombia. That development gave outlets the opportunity to marry the announcement with the more sensational allegations. Here, for instance, is the lede from CBS News this afternoon:
The pope has transferred a top official from the Vatican's secretariat of state to Colombia amid swirling media speculation about the contents of a confidential report into the Vatican's leaks scandal.
Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted Friday that the transfer of Monsignor Ettore Balestrero had been months in the works and had nothing to do with the leaks investigation or what the Vatican considers baseless reporting.
Still, even in that report, the network waited until the seventh paragraph to mention the allegations of "a homosexual lobby among church officials within the Curia." Meanwhile, most U.S. outlets have been more interested in the story of the pope quitting Twitter.
*Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the Sydney Morning Herald.