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The Vatican has slammed what it called "gossip" about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, after Italian media described allegations of intrigue, corruption and blackmail in the top echelons of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican's secretariat of state on Saturday took the unusual step of issuing a formal statement to condemn "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," which it said were intended to influence the choice of a new pope.
The comments follow reports in the Italian press that cardinals investigating the "Vatileaks" scandal had uncovered a network of gay prelates within the Vatican, some of whom – it was claimed – had been targeted by blackmailers and others who had benefited from favoritism based on homosexual relationships.
The cardinals handed their findings to Pope Benedict on Dec. 17, which, according to La Repubblica newspaper, was the same day that he decided to resign.
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Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, however, dismissed the reports as "gossip, disinformation and sometimes calumny."
"There are people who are trying to take advantage of this moment of surprise and disorientation of weak souls to sow confusion and discredit the Church and its government," Lombardi said in a statement on Vatican Radio.
"People who think in terms of money, sex and power and see different realities through this prism cannot see the Church any differently."
He suggested that such rumors were designed to "condition the vote of one or other member of the college of cardinals, who might be disliked for one reason or another."
According to the BBC, Lombardi may also have been referring to "attempts by the American media to dissuade US cardinals alleged to have covered up clerical sexual abuse scandals from traveling to take part in the vote" on a new pope.
Cardinals from all over the world are descending on Vatican City for the conclave that will elect Benedict's successor once he resigns, on Feb. 28.
The run-up to conclaves to elect a new pope is often accompanied by rumours and gossip in the Italian media as rival factions battle for influence.
The 85-year-old pope has said he is too old to continue his duties.
Tens of thousands of faithful are expected in St Peter's Square on Sunday when Benedict will recite his last weekly prayers and again on Wednesday when he will hold his final general audience.