With just days to go before Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, the Vatican is battling rumours that his decision was triggered by an explosive report on intrigue in its hallowed corridors of power.
The secret report compiled by a committee of three cardinals for the pope's eyes only was the result of a broad inquiry into leaks of secret Vatican papers last year -- a scandal known as "Vatileaks".
The cardinals questioned dozens of Vatican officials and presented the pope with their final report in December 2012, just before Benedict pardoned his former butler Paolo Gabriele who had been jailed for leaking the papal memos.
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said on Thursday that the cardinals' report contained allegations of corruption and of blackmail attempts against gay Vatican clergymen, as well as favouritism based on gay relationships.
The Vatican has declined to comment on these two reports, with spokesman Federico Lombardi saying they were "conjectures, fictions and opinions."
In an interview with El Pais, one of the investigating cardinals, Julian Herranz, said the scandal was "a bubble" that had been "inflated".
"There will be black sheep, I am not saying there are not, like in all families," he said, adding that the investigators had "spoken to people, seen what works and what does not, lights and shadows".
Speaking to Italy's Radio 24, Herranz said the idea that "Vatileaks" might have influenced the pope's decision was one "hypothesis" among many others.
"These are decisions that are taken personally in the deep of one's conscience and they must be profoundly respected," the 82-year-old said.
At his final public mass last week, Benedict himself condemned "religious hypocrisy" and urged an end to "individualism and rivalry".
"The face of the Church... is at times disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church," he said, without elaborating.
The run-up to conclaves to elect a new pope is often accompanied by rumours and gossip in Italian media, as rival factions battle for influence.
There was a twist on Friday when Pope Benedict XVI replaced Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the Secretariat of State with a highly influential role in Vatican diplomacy and the Vatican bank's foreign relations.
The 47-year-old is being sent as Vatican envoy to Colombia -- which could be seen as a demotion.
Balestrero has been a key figure in Vatican efforts to overhaul the scandal-tainted bank, which handles the accounts of religious congregations, to comply with international anti-money laundering laws.
La Repubblica said that Balestrero's name was mentioned in the cardinals' report.
A Vatican expert at Italian daily La Stampa said the pope would likely meet with the three retired cardinals who authored the report before resigning.
"Vatileaks" first exploded in January last year when Italian media published a series of letters to the pope in which Carlo Maria Vigano, the head of the Vatican City's government, denounced corruption.
The following leaks pointed to divisions in the Vatican including efforts to unseat Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, a divisive figure.
On May 23, Gabriele was arrested and his house inside the Vatican walls was raided by Vatican gendarmes who found hundreds of sensitive documents.
A day later, the head of the Vatican bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was sacked, accused of mismanagement and indiscretions linked to the leaks.
Alongside a criminal investigation, the pope also asked the cardinals to investigate last year, giving them free rein to interview anyone of the 2,843 people working in the Roman Curia and 2,001 people working for the Vatican City governorate.
Dino Boffo, the former editor of the Italian Catholic weekly Avvenire, who was hounded out by false gossip that he had molested another man, said it was time to put an end to Vatican intrigue.
"I think the Holy See should stop with the terrible vice of anonymous letters being sent with no signatures and no intended recipients," he told ANSA news agency, adding that Benedict had always urged "a clean sweep and an end to internal wars."