Sex, secrets, and the race for the next pope

Pope Benedict is allegedly sitting on a secret dossier of purported scandals at the Vatican. Is there a cardinal alive who can fix this mess?

Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Feb. 13.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Thursday is Pope Benedict XVI's last day in office, and he's leaving a holy mess behind at the Vatican. On Monday, the pope publicly accepted the resignation of Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, days after the U.K.'s lone cardinal was accused in the British press of "inappropriate" behavior toward four men — a charge he denies and the Vatican says played no role in O'Brien's resignation, which was submitted in November. But the more salacious story involves a secret papal dossier Pope Benedict reportedly has locked in a safe in his apartment.

Last week, Italy's La Repubblica newspaper reported, without naming any sources, that Pope Benedict had decided to abdicate his position in December after receiving a secret report on financial improprieties, corruption, and blackmail linked to a network of sexually active gay priests and Vatican officials. The Vatican didn't deny that the pope had received the dossier — the work of three cardinals assigned to untangle the problems exposed in the so-called VatiLeaks airing of Vatican dirty laundry by the pope's former butler. But on Feb. 23, the Vatican criticized the "widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable, or completely false news stories" that it suggested were intended to influence the election of the next pope.

On the same day the Vatican chastised the press, however, Pope Benedict gave his final address to the Curia — the Vatican's byzantine bureaucracy — lamenting the "evil, suffering, and corruption" that have stained the church. And on Monday, the pope met with the three cardinals — Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko, and Salvatore De Giorgi — to thank them for their work on the dossier and express his "satisfaction for the results of the investigation," which found generosity and rectitude at the Holy See despite "the limitations and imperfections of the human factor of every institution," according to a Vatican statement. What might those limitations and imperfections entail, and regarding whom? Pope Benedict "has decided that the acts of this investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new pope." In other words, the only five people who will know what's in the red leather-bound tomes are Benedict, the three cardinals, and whomever the 115 cardinals who will gather in conclave elect as the next pope.

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This poses something of a quandary for the cardinal-electors. Cardinals Herranz, Tomko, and De Giorgi (all of whom are too old to vote in the conclave) will be allowed to discuss their findings with the voting-age cardinals to help the conclave "evaluate the situation and choose a new pope," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Monday. But to a large extent, the cardinal-electors will be flying blind, picking a new leader without knowing what he'll have to clean up — or even whether he's implicated in the mess. "The bolder move would have been to give the report to the cardinals," longtime Vatican watcher John Allen Jr. tells Bloomberg. "If he wanted the dossier to be pivotal in the election of the next pope, that's what he would have done."

So, what are the cardinals to do? The conclave, cloistered in the Sistine Chapel, is supposed to ignore external events and discern the right choice for pope through prayer and discussion. But it's a good bet that terrestrial considerations will weigh heavily among the gathered cardinals, say Eric J. Lyman and Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today.

Benedict's intellect and successful role as a spiritual leader for the world's 1.1 billion Catholics is not in doubt, say Vatican experts and observers. But recent blunders and the poor handling of festering scandals indicate Benedict may have been far too immersed in scholarship and theology over his nearly eight-year tenure when what the church needed was a CEO. "There was a time when the pope was a kind of king, and then, more recently, a spiritual leader," said Alistair Sear, a church historian in Rome. "Perhaps now we will see an age of the pope first and foremost as an administrator." [USA Today]

The cardinals will primarily want somebody who can clean house in Rome, Canadian Vatican analyst Michael Higgins tells The Globe and Mail. But that will be more difficult than it sounds. The Curia is powerful and entrenched, so popes "have to figure out a way to reform the Curia without telling the Curia in advance what they're going to do." That means it may be time to return the papacy to an Italian, as all popes were from Pope Adrian VI in 1522 until the Polish Pope John Paul II in 1978, Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for Britain's The Tablet, tells USA Today. "The Curia can reflect the best and worst aspects of Italy, and there is a belief that it could take an Italian to understand it and reform it." But whomever the cardinals choose, "the recent spate of problems is going to leave the next pope with the greatest challenges since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council."

With the (probably) forced resignation of Cardinal O'Brien fresh on their minds, as well as the recent revelations that U.S. Cardinal Roger Mahony covered up child sex abuse by scores of priests, the cardinal-electors will also be looking for somebody untainted by sex abuse allegations, the Rev. Thomas Reese tells The Globe and Mail. Reese guesses that at least 20 other cardinal-electors have situations similar to Mahony's, and "if the cardinals think they shouldn't elect as pope someone who may have a revelation coming out that he didn't do a good job dealing with sex abuse, then who has clean hands here? Someone who's never been a bishop of a diocese, which is someone who works in the Roman Curia."

This would all seem to be bad news for the push to elect a pope from Africa or Latin America. But it's worth noting that nobody knows what factors will sway the cardinal-electors, probably including the cardinals themselves. And it may be that secret dossiers and unsubstantiated whiffs of scandal won't play that big a role. After all, if sex, graft, and intrigue at the seat of the Roman Catholic Church sounds like something out of the 1400s — or perhaps a Dan Brown novel — well, the Vatican has seen worse. "For all the sex, money, and power headlines wafting out of Rome these days, at least no one has been murdered," like in the heyday of the Borgia popes, says USA Today's Grossman. The main difference today is that the "ancient traditions" of innuendo and infighting "have moved into the bright lights of the 24/7 news cycle social media."

Well, "having someone take a bribe so that a Mafia chief can be buried next to a pope is a whole new level of grifting" at the Vatican, says Charles Pierce at Esquire. But as you watch the pope-making unfold, remember that "the Vatican has been riven by factions for as long as there as been a Vatican."

The Church has been riven by factions for as long as there has been a Church. (It started with Judas Iscariot, if you want to be literal.) As Garry Wills pointed out a few years ago, James Madison formulated his theory of why factions are dangerous to democratic self-government at least in part by his deep reading into the institutional history of Christianity, and thus are the old princely popes at least partly responsible for the argument famously made by Jemmy in Federalist 10. [Esquire]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.