(Photo: Pool, Getty Images)
Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
VATICAN CITY - The Vatican lashed out at the news media Saturday, addressing for the first time reports that Pope Benedict XVI's resignation was linked to an emerging scandal involving gay priests and high-priced blackmail.
Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, who didn't speak in specific terms about the scandal, said, "It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions."
The original story, which first appeared in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica on Thursday, alleges that Benedict's resignation is linked to the discovery of a network of gay priests in the Vatican who were being blackmailed by people outside the Holy See. The story claims the pope's decision to step down dates to Dec. 17, after he first saw a nearly 300-page dossier compiled by three cardinals that has been dubbed "Vatileaks" by the Italian press.
According to La Repubblica, the report identified several illicit meeting places in and around Rome allegedly used for meetings between priests and other officials working in the Vatican and laymen who were "united by their sexual orientation." La Repubblica quoted an unnamed source described as "very close" to the authors of the dossier as saying, "Everything revolves around the non-observance of the sixth and seventh commandments," which refer to adultery and theft, respectively.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, declined to speak about the report when it first surfaced.
Though the topic has the potential to add an explosive new element to the legacy of Benedict, who is the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign, it so far seems not to resonate with the Catholic faithful.
"You always have people who are going to say the worst about the church," said Gian Luca Falco, a 61-year-old labor union administrator who says he comes to St. Peter's three times a week to pray. "I wish those people would think a little more before deciding to slander good people."
Bertone's comments - the first time the church as addressed the topic - came as Benedict met with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday in the pontiff's last political audience before stepping down.
The 40-minute Vatican meeting between the 85-year-old Benedict and Napolitano, 87, was warm and included an exchange of gifts. Napolitano gave the pope an 1840 edition of The Betrothed, a historical novel by 19th Century Italian poet Alessandro Manzoni, and Benedict gave Napolitano an original sketch of a Roman panorama.
Napolitano took office as Italy's head of government a year after Benedict's 2005 assumption to the papacy, and he will retire later this year, a few months after Benedict's abdication Thursday.
In St. Peter's Square, crowds were sparse under the cold and cloudy weather - in contrast to the 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims the Vatican expects to attend Sunday's public blessing. It will mark Benedict's last Sunday blessing before stepping down and his second-to-last public appearance ahead of a blessing Wednesday.
Randall Roy, a 50-year-old government worker from Quebec City in Canada, who emerged from St. Peter's Basilica a short time after Napolitano's visit, said he was content to be in Rome during such a historic period.
"I did not pick these dates on purpose, but I am happy to be a witness to such a memorable point in time," he said, adding he plans to come back to attend the pope's blessing Wednesday.
Sunday also marks the first of two days of voting by Italians, who will go to the polls to select their next prime minister.
"This is a period of great transformation for the Vatican and Italy," said Luca Giordano, 27, a Roman florist who stopped in St. Peter's on his day off. "Just think: The Rome we are living in today will be gone by this time next week."