PRAGUE — Pope Benedict XVI, struggling to tame intrigue, won't give cardinals access to a secret Vatican dossier into leaked papal documents before they meet next month to elect his successor.
Benedict, 85, who on Thursday will become the first pontiff in 600 years to retire, met with the three cardinals tasked to investigate the case known as Vatileaks, the Holy See press office said in a statement Monday. The episode led last year to the arrest of the pope's personal butler in one of the worst security breaches in modern Vatican history.
The pontiff thanked Cardinals Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi for work that "made it possible to detect, given the limitations and imperfections of the human factor in every institution, the generosity and dedication of those who work with uprightness and generosity in the Holy See," according to the statement. Still, "the acts of this investigation," known only to Benedict, "will remain solely at the disposition of the new pope."
The German-born pope is preparing to make his last public appearance Wednesday amid a wave of controversy, including the resignation of Britain's most senior Catholic cleric following allegations of his "inappropriate" behavior toward priests.
Speculation that a frail Benedict has struggled to stem intrigue has been fueled by his own words. In his final address Saturday to the Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Vatican, the pope lamented the "evil, suffering and corruption" that has defaced the church. He announced on Feb. 11 he would leave office because he no longer had the strength to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Last week, Italian magazine Panorama and La Repubblica newspaper reported the pope had decided to resign in December after receiving the secret dossier, the result of the probe into the leaks case that allegedly detailed a network of sex and graft in the Vatican and suggested some prelates' conduct made them vulnerable to blackmail. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the media reports don't "correspond to reality."
Vatileaks centered on papal documents that were passed to an Italian journalist by Paolo Gabriele, the pope's former butler. The pope pardoned Gabriele last month after he had been convicted of theft by a Vatican tribunal and sentenced to 18 months in a Vatican jail.
The leaked texts formed the backbone of a book portraying the Vatican as a hotbed of intrigue and Benedict as a leader undermined by his powerful second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, once touted as a possible candidate for the papacy. Gabriele indicated that he had leaked the documents to protect the pope and expose "evil and corruption" in the Vatican.
In a rare public rebuke, the Vatican lashed out at the media over the weekend, accusing journalists of "widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories" that amounted to an attempt "to exert pressure" on the cardinals who will gather for the conclave.
The pope on Monday also issued a decree to allow the cardinals to bring forward the start of the conclave, meaning the gathering may begin as soon as early March. Cardinals are likely to meet to decide the conclave's date early next week, Lombardi said Tuesday. The conclave is widely expected to begin around March 10, according to Robert Moynihan, editor of the magazine Inside the Vatican.
The pope's decree, or "motu proprio" in Latin, also introduced stricter secrecy rules. Any violation of secrecy during the conclave will punished by automatic excommunication from the church, according to the document.
The Holy See is struggling to manage its message before the secret gathering, which will take place in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo's fresco of God breathing life into Adam. It's also facing questions over Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who's insisted that he'll attend the conclave even after U.S. court documents showed he helped cover up sex abuse by more than 120 priests.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's top Catholic, said in a statement Monday that he won't attend the conclave after the pope accepted his resignation prior to his 75th birthday, when cardinals must submit their resignations, which may or may not be accepted by the pope. O'Brien, who cited age and health when he handed in his resignation in November, said he didn't want to be a media distraction during the conclave. He denies any wrongdoing.
Besides O'Brien, a cardinal from Indonesia may also miss the conclave due to health reasons, putting the number of papal electors at 115. The pope will address them on Thursday before flying by helicopter to his summer residence in the hills south of Rome. He'll return to live in a convent within the Vatican walls two months later.
After retirement, Benedict's official title will be "Pope Emeritus" or "Roman Pontiff Emeritus," Lombardi said at a briefing Tuesday. While he'll continue to wear a white cassock, Benedict will drop his trademark red shoes in favor of a pair of brown ones made for him in Mexico, the spokesman said.
The dossier into the leaks probe will remain secret, though the three cardinals who compiled it may inform their counterparts on its contents before the conclave to help them "evaluate the situation and choose a new pope," Lombardi said at a news briefing Monday.
"The bolder move would have been to give the report to the cardinals," John Allen Jr., author of "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith," a book about the pope, said by phone. "If he wanted the dossier to be pivotal in the election of the next pope, that's what he would have done."