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Vatican history of 'cover-ups and disarray' will challenge new pope

Although the Pope's announcement that he would abdicate his position seemed sudden, Benedict reportedly made his decision in 2012 after a trip to Cuba and Mexico. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI cited failing health for his historic decision to step aside, but it is increasingly clear that the rich seam of scandal and strife running through the Vatican weighed heavily on his mind.

Allegations of corruption at the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church were "great challenges" for the pontiff, according to his brother who on Tuesday referred to them coyly as "irregularities."

Experts said only the appointment of a strong replacement willing to exert a tighter grip on its divided hierarchy would succeed in giving the church a clean break from its troubles.

"They are going to need a reformer who can bring management skills," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., author of "Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church." "After all, it is often said that a good bishop needs to be like Jesus with an MBA."

The biggest headache for Pope Benedict XVI was the issue of alleged child sex abuse and the extent to which it had been ignored in some quarters of the church.

But it was the Vatileaks affair that fostered "perceptions of in-fighting, cover-ups and disarray," according to John Allen, Rome-based senior correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter.

Division between rival camps within the church hierarchy — on one side, the pope’s ally and Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, and on the other, state figures from previous papal regimes — motivated the illegal leaking of thousands of documents that portrayed Bertone in a poor light.

In October, the pope’s former butler Paolo Gabriele was given an 18-month prison sentence after being found guilty of stealing of the documents, which included some of Benedict’s private papers and letters alleging corruption within the church.

Letters and memos show that a senior Vatican figure, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, was removed from his post not long after blowing the whistle on nepotism and overpayments for goods and services that he said had wasted millions of dollars, including more than $500,000 on Christmas nativity figures.

Bertone was also accused of ousting the reformist head of the Institute for Works of Religion — the so-called ‘Vatican Bank’ – and, bizarrely, of being involved in a plot to smear the editor of a Catholic newspaper as a homosexual.

The litany of scandals that surfaced during Benedict’s papacy is a “long and not especially edifying list,” Allen said, although he added that some revelations had been exaggerated. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read about the Vatican in Italian newspapers.”

Vatican historians do not have to look far for evidence of similar problems. The 1984 payout of more than $200 million to creditors of Banco Ambrosiano was an acknowledgement of the role church funds had played in the collapsed bank’s dealings. The bank’s chairman, Robert Calvi, was a financial adviser to the Vatican. He was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982.

“Like any other workplace, the Vatican needs to have in place a system that ensures there are no personal interests in awarding financial contracts and so on,” said Reese. “The problem is that the church has been its own auditor and policeman.”

“The last two popes have been academic characters, and academics are not the best at reforming organizations.”

Allen said: "The Vatican is going to need somebody who can act as a strong rudder, to bang heads together if necessary and to be seen as above the various factions. It's a very tough job."

Javier Barbancho / AFP - Getty Images

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.


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