The Vatican has lashed out at the media for what it said has been a run of defamatory and false reports before the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor, saying they were an attempt to influence the election.
Italian newspapers have been rife with unsourced reports in recent days about the contents of a secret dossier prepared for the pope by three cardinals who investigated the origins of the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
The reports suggested the revelations in the dossier, given to Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign. The pope himself has said only that he does not have the "strength of mind and body" to carry on.
The Vatican secretariat of state said the Catholic Church has for centuries insisted on the independence of its cardinals to elect their pope. Now, it said, the "pressures of public opinion" are in play in a bid to influence the vote.
"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."
It was issued as Benedict met the Vatican bureaucracy for the last time before stepping down February 28. The occasion was the final session of the Vatican's Lenten spiritual retreat, a week-long series of meditations composed by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, himself a papal contender.
In one of his final meditations yesterday, Mr Ravasi denounced the "divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies" that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy - divisions that were exposed by the leaks of documents taken from the pope's study. The documents revealed the petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
The three cardinals who investigated the theft of the documents had wide-ranging powers to interview even cardinals to get to the bottom of the dynamics within the Curia - the Vatican bureaucracy - that resulted in the gravest Vatican security breach in modern times.
Benedict has referred obliquely to the Vatican's dysfunction in recent days, deploring how the church is often "defiled" by attacks and divisions and urging its members to overcome "pride and egoism".
In his final comments to the Curia today, he lamented the "evil, suffering and corruption" that has defaced God's creation. But he also thanked the Vatican bureaucrats for eight years of work, love and faith and promised them he would be spiritually close to them in retirement.