Vatican Says Media Trying to Put Pressure of 'Public Opinion' on Papal Election

(Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo)

ROME - The official communiqué from the Vatican Secretariat of State today made the press corps sound like the Borgias trying to rig a papal election, as the Holy See today sought to defend the College of Cardinals against a news media obsessed by scandals.

In the strongest possible terms, officials denounced the "widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable, or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."

"Through the course of the centuries, Cardinals have faced many forms of pressure," said the statement, read aloud to reporters by Father Federico Lombardi.

"If in the past, the so-called powers (i.e. states) exerted pressures on the election of the Pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion," he said.

Officials declined to be specific about what stories they are upset about, but they have been railing all week about Italian news reports that have presumed to connect the various dots of recent events here into a wildly operatic conspiracy theory.

Citing blind sources, the Italian papers claim to know the contents of a top secret dossier supposedly delivered to Pope Benedict in December that contained the findings of an internal investigation conducted at the pope's request.

There was indeed a recent investigation into the so-called Vatileaks affair, but no one outside a select few inside the pope's inner circle knows what the findings may have been.

The Rome newspaper La Repubblica reported that the investigation, conducted by three cardinals who are referred to in some Italian accounts as clerical James Bonds, "the 007 priests," uncovered a blackmail plot targeting gay clergy inside the Vatican.

The salacious reports, picked up by many international news outlets today, claim the real reason Benedict resigned was to avoid facing more scandals.

Vatican officials won't even deign to comment on these reports. Privately they dismiss them as gossip, misinformation, and slander spread with the intention of discrediting the church as it approaches a papal election.

Rather than trade in conspiracy theories, the Vatican spokesman has exhorted reporters "to concentrate on the last days and great encounters of Benedict's papacy."

The Vatican has also done its best to try to steer the conversation away from the ongoing sexual abuse scandal.

Today in Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony had to testify under oath about allegations he actively concealed the crimes of pedophile priests.

Related: Cardinal Mahony Tweets, But Not About Deposition

One of them, Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera was accused of molesting 26 boys in 1987 during a visit to Los Angeles. Confidential personnel files released earlier this year as a result of a court order make it clear that Aguilar Rivera fled to Mexico after Mahony's top aide warned the priest that the police would open an investigation.

Mahony himself has acknowledged serious mistakes in his handling of cases during the 1980s and '90s. But he and his supporters insist that after 2002, Mahony instituted reforms in the way the archdiocese handles allegations of abuse - making it a model for the rest of the country.

Still, to the people who were sexually abused in the nation's largest archdiocese, the idea that Mahony should help choose the next pope is an outrage.

"It's absolutely mind boggling to me that this continues to go on," said Ken Smolka, one of the countless victims. "Mahoney should be jailed. There's absolutely no excuse for what he did."

But the church doesn't see it that way. Even as officials ask for forgiveness, they insist voting in the conclave is a cardinal's sacred duty.

"I don't think many of the cardinals in Rome are very concerned about Mahony voting because they consider him a member of the fraternity. That's the way the church functions," said Jason Berry, Vatican reporter for Globalpost and author of "Render Unto Rome."

So when the Vatican decries the pressure being brought to bear against individual cardinals because of "political or worldly logic," they may well be referring to Mahony and others who are caught up in the scandal.

Writing in his own personal blog, Mahony has declared himself a "scapegoat," suffering "painful and public humiliation" just like Jesus.

Today he tweeted his excitement about his departure for Rome. "Will be tweeting often from Rome, except during the actual Conclave itself," he said.

Mahony did not mention the deposition.