Workers set up a stage for the news media at Vatican City a day before Pope… (Oded Balilty, Associated…)
VATICAN CITY — Deep inside a safe in the papal apartment lies a top-secret report — for his holiness' eyes only — that has become the most talked-about document in Rome.
Written by three elderly cardinals, the dossier delves into the most damaging security breach in the Vatican in living memory: the recent leak of private papers belonging to Pope Benedict XVI. The pontiff commissioned the senior prelates to find out how such a major lapse could have occurred and why.
Where the fingers point — already a matter of fevered conjecture in the Italian press — could become a factor in the selection of the next pope after Benedict's retirement Thursday. Even though the 115 cardinals who will choose a new pontiff are not being allowed to read the confidential file, what they believe to be in it could color their decision.
Speculation over the dossier's potentially explosive contents is just part of the politicking that is likely to go into the heavily veiled process of picking a new leader for the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
That process in effect started earlier than usual because of Benedict's surprise announcement of his intention to step down from office rather than let death remove him from it. The advance notice of a vacancy on the throne of St. Peter means that papal hopefuls, their supporters and detractors have already begun sizing one another up, plotting strategy and assessing chances.
As yet, no whisper campaigns or well-timed leaks to the news media have sprung up as the cardinals converge on Rome to be on hand for Benedict's farewell. But if previous papal transitions are any guide, that could just be a matter of time.
"I'm sure we'll see it," said John Allen, a veteran Vatican watcher for the National Catholic Reporter.
As spiritual and prayerful as the process is supposed to be, cardinals have been known to resort to more worldly methods of advancing their favored candidates or issues.
"They are talking with one another — not in public view, obviously," Allen said, and some also have made brief statements to journalists. "Other cardinals are reading those interviews. That's also a way to put down markers," he said.
The most crucial forum for the cardinals to do some subtle self-promotion and to evaluate one another is the group meetings they will hold to discuss issues facing the church as they prepare for the conclave to elect the new pope. The Vatican announced Tuesday that those meetings, called general congregations, would begin Monday.
Marco Tosatti, a Vatican correspondent for La Stampa newspaper, said the discussions of the church's challenges would be particularly important in determining who Benedict's successor will be.
In previous conclaves, some of the jockeying fell along doctrinal lines, between conservative and liberal camps. But the current College of Cardinals is almost entirely conservative, in the mold of the two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who appointed them, so those divisions don't apply. Instead, Tosatti said, the main focus will be on the church's priorities.
"They are still thinking [about] not the man but what are the challenges to the church. All this will come out during the general congregation," Tosatti said. "They start to gather a consensus on the issues, and only then they'll start asking the question, who's the man who can face the challenge? You choose a problem first and then the man after."
Tosatti doesn't detect too much maneuvering behind the scenes by the papabili, or "pope-ables," so far. But that is likely to change once all the cardinals have arrived in Rome.
One of the issues expected to arise is the internal workings of the Vatican, which has come under heavy scrutiny since the papal documents were leaked. The papers painted an unflattering portrait of an institution racked by turf battles and corruption at the highest levels, and suggested that Benedict was unable to curb abuses.
The pope's personal butler was arrested and convicted by a Vatican tribunal of stealing the private papers. Benedict later pardoned him and commissioned the three cardinals to investigate.
One recent Italian news report, citing anonymous sources, said the top-secret dossier on the so-called Vatileaks scandal contains revelations of a gay lobby within the Vatican, some of whose members were being blackmailed over their sexuality.
Vatican officials have labeled such reports as baseless and malicious. But that has not stopped some Vatican watchers from wondering whether some mudslinging is already underway, although no one has quite yet divined who benefits and who doesn't from the speculative accounts of the dossier's contents.
The Vatican said this week that the report, which Benedict has read, would be handed over only to his successor and not be made available to the rest of the cardinals. But the three prelates who compiled the dossier will attend the general congregation and could divulge some of its findings.