VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Tuesday sought to put the widening scandal over leaked documents into a very different light, saying the stolen papers didn't just concern matters of internal church governance but represented the thoughts of people who in writing to the pope believed they were essentially speaking before God.
As a result, Pope Benedict XVI feels particularly pained over the leaks and wants to get to the bottom of the scandal to heal the breach and re-establish a sense of trust among the faithful, according to the Vatican's undersecretary of state, Archbishop Angelo Becciu.
"I consider the publication of stolen letters to be an unprecedentedly grave immoral act," Becciu told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. "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."
The so-called "Vatileaks" scandal has tormented the Vatican for months and represents one of the greatest breaches of trust and security for the pope in recent memory. Benedict's personal butler has been arrested, accused of theft, after documents he had no business having were found in his Vatican City apartment.
Few think the butler acted alone, and the investigation is continuing on three separate tracks.
The butler, Paolo Gabriele, is due to be formally questioned in the coming days by Vatican prosecutors following his May 23 arrest, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. His lawyers reported that he had pledged to fully cooperate with the investigation to get to the truth, raising the specter that higher ranking prelates may soon be implicated.
The motivations for the leaks remain unclear: Some commentators say they appear designed to discredit Benedict's No. 2, the secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Others say they're aimed at undermining the Vatican's efforts to become more financially transparent. Still others say they aim to show the 85-year-old Benedict's weakness in running the church.
Becciu said the pope was particularly pained that someone so close to him had been arrested for behavior that was "unjustifiable under any pretext."
"Certainly, the pope feels pity for him," Becciu said. "But still, what has happened was brutal."
"When a Catholic speaks to the Roman pontiff, it's a duty to open yourself up as if you were before God, also because you feel complete guarantees of confidentiality," he said, trying to describe the significance of the leaks to the Vatican.
Lombardi said the scandal was grave enough that Benedict has established a commission of high-ranking cardinals to investigate alongside the criminal investigation and an internal administrative probe.
The cardinals' commission is headed by a heavyweight: Cardinal Julian Herranz, an Opus Dei prelate who headed the Vatican's legal office as well as the disciplinary commission of the Vatican bureaucracy before retiring.
In addition, the pope's personal bodyguard, Domenico Giani, a former Italian secret service agent, has been on something of a crusade tracking down the origin of the leaks in recent months, Vatican insiders report.
"We aren't afraid of the problems, the difficulties and also the errors and guilt that might come out," Lombardi told reporters Tuesday. "We are trying to do the right thing, following a difficult path of truth and taking the necessary measures to reestablish the trust and good functioning of the governance of the church and its institutions."
He said it certainly was a "difficult test" for the pope and his aides but that he hoped that the problems would be identified so that the Vatican can "enjoy the trust of the people God, which the pope certainly merits and we his collaborators must try to support."
The Vatileaks scandal broke in January when Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi broadcast letters from a former top Vatican administrator who begged the pope not to transfer him for having exposed alleged corruption that cost the Holy See millions of euros (dollars) in higher contract prices. The prelate, Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican's U.S. ambassador.
The scandal widened over the following months with documents leaked to Italian journalists that laid bare power struggles inside the Vatican over its efforts to show greater financial transparency and comply with international norms to fight money laundering. There was even a leak of a memo claiming that Benedict would die this year.
The scandal reached a peak last weekend, when Nuzzi published an entire book based on a trove of new documentation, including personal correspondence to and from the pope and his private secretary, much of which paints Bertone in a negative light.
The Vatican has called the publication a "criminal act" and warned of legal action for those who stole, received and disseminated the documents. Nuzzi, who in 2009 published a book on leaked documents from the Vatican bank, has justified the publication as an act of transparency.
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