The top cream of the Catholic Church is on the spot again and the Pope has stepped out to manage a new storm that threatens to blow away leadership integrity at the Vatican.
This time, the Holy See is at the centre of a raging controversy over a series of information leaks alleging corruption, mismanagement and internal conflicts and power struggles among top cardinals.
It is the second major scandal that Pope Benedict XVI – who has been in office for seven years – is confronting, and it appears that senior Vatican clerics have been using press leaks to discredit their colleagues.
According to media reports, the leaks paint a picture of conspiracy and intrigue among senior clerics, all plotting to gain advantage over rivals behind their elderly boss’s back.
The raging scandal was touched off by journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi’s book, His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, which alleges corruption and conspiracies among cardinals in a Vatican struggle for power.
The publication of the book earlier this week has led to a high level investigation to net those behind the leaks.
“My job is to find and publish news, it is my ethical duty. These documents reveal the secrets of the Vatican but there is nothing in the documents that threatens the security of that state,” Mr Nuzzi told Reuters on Wednesday.
He spoke as the Pope denounced what he called false media coverage of the scandal, which his aides have branded a brutal, personal attack on the ageing pontiff.
Renew my trust
“The events of recent days about the Curia and my collaborators have brought sadness in my heart,” the Pontiff said at the end of his weekly address on Thursday.
He added: “I want to renew my trust in and encouragement of my closest collaborators and all those who every day, with loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice and in silence, help me fulfill my ministry.”
The book contains a trove of private Vatican correspondence, including documents alleging cronyism and corruption in infrastructure contracts with Italian companies.
It also contains claims of conspiracies among cardinals and clashes over management at the Vatican’s own bank, the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR).
The author talks of highly secretive meetings with sources wary that their cover could be blown and creates scenes that appear to be straight out of a movie.
The leaks, the rumours, the raging allegations of murky machinations of the court – highly regarded as sacred by those of the Catholic faith – make for a great menu of a bare-knuckled power struggle.
University of Nairobi lecturer and Catholic priest Father Dominic Wamugunda says the intriguing picture of high-level skulduggery and intense power games are not unexpected.
“In my honest view, The Vatican is basically an institutional bureaucracy and there are competing interests in terms of power. The Pope is pretty old and some would like to see him as a transitional Pope,” Fr Wamugunda told the Sunday Nation.
In his assessment, the power struggle may also be about Italian clerics’ quest to keep control of The Vatican.
For 400 years before the last two papacies, the Pope has always been Italian.
“This Pope succeeded one who was not Italian and he himself is not Italian. Before John Paul II (who was Polish), for about 400 years the popes have been Italian. I’m sure the Italians must be feeling that one of their own should take over The Vatican. There could be all that,” Fr Wamugunda said.
But he says the scandals rocking the Holy See would hardly affect the Kenyan faithful.
“At our level, the congregation is not worried about such things. I don’t think it’s a major concern. The Vatican is quite far. If it was happening to a local bishop it would be a major issue.”
The same view is held by the secretary of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, Father Vincent Wambugu: “The Embassy of the Vatican would be best placed to comment on that but, in terms of faith, we are sound despite the reports.”
He said the Catholic Church in Kenya had yet to receive any official communication about the unfolding events.
Previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the professorial pianist was looking forward to retirement when Pope John Paul II died in 2005. He has said he never wanted to be Pope.
He took over leadership as one of the fiercest storms the Catholic Church has faced in decades — the scandal of child sex abuse by priests — was brewing.
The flood of allegations, lawsuits and official reports into clerical abuse reached a peak in 2009 and 2010.
The most damaging claims for the Church have been that local dioceses – or even The Vatican itself – were complicit in the cover-up of many of the cases, prevaricating over the punishment of paedophile priests and sometimes moving them to new stations where they continued with the abuse.
While some senior Vatican figures initially lashed out at the media or alleged an anti-Catholic conspiracy, the Pope has insisted that the Church accept its own responsibility, pointing directly to “sin within the Church”.
He has met and issued an unprecedented apology to victims, promised action and made clear that bishops must report abuse cases to the local authorities.
And last Thursday, the Pope broke his silence on The Vatican leaks scandal, expressing his anger at the way some parts of the media are covering the story.
He said “exaggerated” and “gratuitous” reports were painting a false image of the Holy See.
The Pope’s butler – an attendant whose job includes minding the pontiff’s dress and appearance – has been charged with illegally obtaining private papal documents and memos.
Mr Paolo Gabriele, who lives with his wife and children in a Vatican flat, where a stash of confidential documents was allegedly discovered, has pledged “full co-operation” with the investigation.
The Vatican has denied Italian media reports suggesting that Mr Gabriele, 46, had not acted alone, but was part of a group of 20 or so whistle blowers led by a cardinal.
During his weekly address at St Peter’s Square, the Pope said: “Suggestions have multiplied, amplified by some media, which are totally gratuitous and which have gone well beyond the facts, offering an image of the Holy See which does not respond to reality.”
He also spoke of the impact of the charges against Mr Gabriele, his valet for many years and one of a very limited number of people who had access to his private apartments.
“The events of recent days about the Curia [Vatican ecclesiastical officials] and my collaborators have brought sadness in my heart,” he said.
He added that he was grateful to those who had continued to work with him “every day, with loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice and in silence”.
On Tuesday, the Vatican undersecretary of state, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, called the media reports a “brutal” attack on the Pope.
“It’s not just that the Pope’s papers were stolen, but that people who turned to him as the vicar of Christ have had their consciences violated,” he told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
The scandal began in January when journalist Nuzzi revealed letters from a former top Vatican administrator begging the Pope not to transfer him for having exposed alleged corruption.
The prelate involved, Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican’s ambassador to the US.
Last month, the Pope set up a special commission of cardinals to find the source of the confidential memos.
But in the space of a few days last week, the head of the Vatican’s own bank was abruptly dismissed, Mr Gabriele was arrested and an entire book by Mr Nuzzi was published with reproductions of the Pope’s private correspondence.
It turns out that Archbishop Vigano had written to the Pope confidentially last March, alleging corruption, nepotism and cronyism in the office where he worked.
Nepotism is a word charged with heavy meaning inside the Vatican. For centuries popes were accustomed to appointing their own nephews as cardinals, sometimes when they were only in their teens.
Archbishop Vigano’s letter was leaked by the Italian investigative journalist during a TV transmission on the independent Italian Channel La Sette. The Vatican has not contested that the letter is genuine.
Another leak concerns attempts by the Holy See to combat suspicions of money-laundering by the Vatican Bank.
At the bank
Published by the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, which has consistently reported on alleged suspicious transactions at the bank, the document bears the signature of Cardinal Attilio Nicora.
He heads a new internal committee tasked by the Pope with helping the Holy See comply with international banking regulations, aimed at combating international financial crime.
The letter suggests serious divisions of opinion inside The Vatican over how best to prevent it becoming a fiscal paradise, a tax haven for dodgy commercial operations run by nominees who have no right to hold accounts at the Institute for Works of Religion.
During the 1980s, the bank was at the centre of a major international financial scandal which resulted in a loss for the Vatican of $250 million (about Sh21 billion today).
Vatican Bank accounts are supposed to be held only by religious orders and members of the clergy.
The Vatican’s daily L’Osservatore Romano wrote in a recent editorial that officials who revealed sensitive internal documents were “wolves” and that Pope Benedict was ready to stand up to their “irresponsible and undignified behaviour”.
The Pope’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, compared the leaks to America’s WikiLeaks scandal and said they were intended to show The Vatican and its central government in bad light.
And the pope this year when he told local Rome seminarians training to become priests: “There is a lot of talk about the Church, a lot of things being said. Let us hope there is also talk about our faith!”
Money clearly preoccupies the men currently running the Catholic Church.
A closed-door meeting of an internal Vatican watchdog finance committee this week formally expressed concern at the prevailing crisis, “which has not spared even the general economic system of the Vatican”.
While promising to “improve the administration of the goods and resources of the Holy See”, the committee called upon the world’s 1.3 billion Catholic faithful to dig deeper into their pockets to continue funding The Vatican.