VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI broke his silence Wednesday over the leaked documents scandal that has convulsed the Vatican, saying he was saddened by the betrayal but grateful to those aides who work faithfully and in silence to help him do his job.
Benedict made his first direct comments on the scandal in off-the-cuff remarks at the end of his weekly general audience.
He lashed out at some of the media reports about the scandal, saying the "exaggerated" and "gratuitous" rumors had offered a false image of the Holy See.
The Italian media have been in a frenzy ever since the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested last week after Vatican investigators discovered papal documents in his Vatican City apartment. He remains in detention and has pledged to cooperate fully with the investigation.
Rumors have been flying in the press about possible cardinals implicated in the probe, pending resignations and details of the investigation that even Gabriele's lawyers say they haven't heard. The Vatican spokesman has spent much of his daily briefings in recent days shooting down the various reports.
The scandal represents one of the greatest breaches of trust and security for the Holy See in recent memory given that a significant number of documents from the pope's own desk were leaked to an investigative journalist. The Vatican has denounced the leaks as criminal and immoral and has opened a three-pronged investigation to get to the bottom of who was responsible.
"The events of recent days about the Curia and my collaborators have brought sadness in my heart," Benedict said at the end of his audience. But he added: "I want to renew my trust in and encouragement of my closest collaborators and all those who every day, with loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice and in silence, help me fulfill my ministry."
Few people think Gabriele worked alone, and his promise to cooperate with the investigation has fueled speculation that other might be arrested soon.
The motivations for the leaks remain unclear: Some commentators say they appear designed to discredit Benedict's No. 2, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Others say they're aimed at undermining the Vatican's efforts to become more financially transparent. Still others say they aim to show the 85-year-old Benedict's weakness in running the church.
The scandal is playing out in a remarkable way, due in great part to the uniqueness of the institution in which it's occurring and the players involved.
Gabriele is an employee of the Holy See, a citizen and resident of the Vatican city state. He is being held by Vatican police who have accused him of stealing the pope's personal papers in a terrible breach of trust. His lawyers are Italian legal professionals, but they are communicating to the media via the Vatican spokesman — a conflict of interest that the Rev. Federico Lombardi has acknowledged but tried to downplay by saying he was merely offering a service to release information to the media.
Lombardi refers to Gabriele as "Paolo" and has repeatedly expressed sadness for what has happened. At the same time, though, the Vatican undersecretary of state, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, lashed out at what he called an unprecedented, "brutal" attack on the pope that the leaks represent.
In an interview Tuesday with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Becciu said the stolen papers didn't just concern matters of internal church governance but represented the thoughts of people who in writing to the pope believed they were essentially speaking before God.
"It's not just that the pope's papers were stolen, but that people who turned to him as the vicar of Christ have had their consciences violated," Becciu was quoted as saying.
The scandal broke in January when Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi revealed letters from a former top Vatican administrator who begged the pope not to transfer him for having exposed alleged corruption that cost the Holy See millions of euros (dollars) in higher contract prices.
The prelate, Monsignor Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican's U.S. ambassador.
The scandal widened over the following months with documents leaked to Italian journalists that laid bare power struggles inside the Vatican over its efforts to show greater financial transparency and comply with international norms to fight money laundering. There was even a leak of a memo claiming that Benedict would die this year.
The crisis reached a peak last weekend, when Nuzzi published an entire book based on a trove of new documentation, including personal correspondence to and from the pope and his private secretary, much of which paints Bertone in a negative light.
The Vatican has warned of legal action for those who stole, received and disseminated the documents. Nuzzi, who in 2009 published a book on leaked documents from the Vatican bank, has justified the publication as an act of transparency and says there's not a word against the pope or the church in the book.