The Vatican on Saturday hit back at Italian media reports of intrigue, corruption and blackmail among top prelates, saying they were aimed at pressuring cardinals ahead of their vote to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI who resigns next week.
The Vatican's Secretariat of State -- effectively the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church -- took the highly unusual step of issuing a formal statement condemning "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories".
The statement said the current atmosphere recalled past centuries when foreign states would try, "following a political or worldly logic", to influence the outcome of conclaves -- the traditional meetings of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel to elect popes. "If in the past the so-called powers, i.e. states, exerted pressures on the election of the pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion," the Secretariat of State said.
It said recent media reports were "deplorable" and "cause serious damage to persons and institutions", adding that they did not capture "the spiritual aspect of the moment the Church is living".
The pope last year appointed three cardinals to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into the Roman Curia, the Vatican hierarchy, in parallel with a police inquiry into a scandal known as "Vatileaks".
Benedict's butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested, convicted and later pardoned by the pope for leaking confidential documents to the press, but suspicions linger that more people were involved.
The cardinals submitted their report for the pope's eyes only, but Italian media have said they will also share their conclusions with other cardinals ahead of the pontiff's resignation on Thursday.
The Panorama news weekly and the Repubblica daily said on Thursday that the cardinals' report contained allegations of corruption and of blackmail attempts against gay Vatican clergy, as well as favouritism based on gay relationships.
They said the report may have influenced the pope's shock decision to resign, though the 85-year-old pontiff cited his advancing age.
In a statement on Vatican Radio's website, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi dismissed the reports as "gossip, disinformation and sometimes calumny".
Referring to the conclave, Lombardi said there was "unacceptable pressure to condition the vote of one or other member of the college of cardinals, who might be disliked for one reason or another".
"There are people who are trying to take advantage of this moment of surprise and disorientation of weak souls to sow confusion and discredit the Church and its government," Lombardi said.
"People who think in terms of money, sex and power and see different realities through this prism cannot see the Church any differently," he said.
The pope meanwhile completed his traditional week-long spiritual retreat in the Vatican with the Roman Curia, saying he would remain in "spiritual proximity" to his aides even after he steps down.
In a speech to the Curia on Saturday, the pope also said that the beauty of God's creation "is constantly contradicted by the evil of this world, by suffering and by corruption".
He thanked members of the Curia, adding that "even though our external visible communion is coming to an end, there remains a spiritual proximity, there remains a profound communion in prayer".
Tens of thousands of faithful are expected in St Peter's Square on Sunday when Benedict will recite his last weekly prayers and again on Wednesday when he will hold his final general audience.
The pope has said he will resign on Thursday -- the first pope to do so since the Middle Ages -- because he no longer has the strength of body and mind to carry out his duties in the modern world. At his final public mass in St Peter's Basilica last week, Benedict condemned "religious hypocrisy" and urged an end to "individualism and rivalry".
"The face of the Church... is at times disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church," he said, without elaborating.
The run-up to conclaves to elect a new pope is often accompanied by rumours and gossip in the Italian media as rival factions battle for influence.
"Vatileaks" first exploded in January last year when Italian media published a series of letters to the pope in which Carlo Maria Vigano, then head of the Vatican City's government, denounced corruption.
The following leaks pointed to divisions in the Vatican including efforts to unseat Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, a divisive figure.
On May 23, Gabriele was arrested and Vatican gendarmes raided his house inside the Vatican walls, finding hundreds of sensitive documents.
A day later, the head of the Vatican bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was sacked, accused of mismanagement and indiscretions linked to the leaks.
In contrast to the intrigue swirling in the Vatican, Manila archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle -- seen as a possible candidate to succeed Benedict -- gave an interview in which he recounted an anecdote from when he was named cardinal last year.
After he cried during the ceremony in St Peter's, Tagle said he apologised to the pope the next day for his emotional outburst. Benedict, he said, responded: "No, you don't have to say sorry. We need heart in the Church!"