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Rumors of scandal point to rocky path for papal conclave

Leaks meant to hurt candidates, observers say

Police set up barriers on Saturday ahead of Benedict XVI’s final Sunday service as pope.

GUIDO MONTANI/EPA

Police set up barriers on Saturday ahead of Benedict XVI’s final Sunday service as pope.

VATICAN CITY — As cardinals from around the world begin arriving in Rome for a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, new shadows have fallen over the delicate transition, which the Vatican fears might influence the vote and with it the direction of the Roman Catholic Church.

In recent days, often speculative reports — some even alleging gay sex scandals in the Vatican, others focusing on particular cardinals stung by the child sex abuse crisis — have dominated headlines in Italian news media, suggesting fierce internal struggles as prelates scramble to consolidate power and attack enemies in the dying days of a troubled papacy.

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The reports, which the Vatican has vehemently denied, touch on some of the most vexing issues of Benedict’s papacy, including the child sex abuse crisis and international criticism of the Vatican Bank’s opaque record-keeping. The recent explosion of bad press — which some Vatican watchers say is fed by carefully orchestrated leaks meant to weaken some papal contenders — also speak to Benedict’s own difficulties governing, which analysts say he is trying to address with several high-profile personnel changes.

The drumbeat of scandal has grown so loud that on Saturday the Vatican secretariat of state issued a rare pointed rebuke, calling it ‘‘deplorable’’ that ahead of the conclave there was ‘‘a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable, or completely false news stories, that cause serious damage to persons and institutions.’’

The Vatican compared the news reports to attempts in the past by foreign states to exert pressure on the papal election, saying the latest efforts to skew the choice of the next pope by trying to shape public opinion were ‘‘based on judgments that do not typically capture the spiritual aspect of the moment that the Church is living.’’

Benedict had hoped to address at least one scandal with the Feb. 15 appointment of a new head of the Vatican Bank. It is less clear why he reassigned a powerful Vatican diplomatic official to a posting outside Rome, though experts say it diminishes the official’s role in helping steer Vatican policy.

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