Did the Pope quit to dodge blame for misdeeds or just to do the right thing?
The latest allegation that a gay priest blackmail scandal was the reason for Benedict XVI’s sudden resignation shows that his sudden decision will be queried long after his departure, perhaps robbing him of his greatest achievement while in office.
Italian newspaper La Repubblica has reported that the Pope was overwhelmed when presented with evidence in mid-December last year (collected in "two volumes of almost 300 pages – bound in red”) of a network of highly-placed Vatican priests who did not only engage in illicit homosexual “worldly relations” with outsiders, but let themselves be blackmailed by their gay lovers.
Among the listed locations for alleged trysts were a sauna, a beauty parlor, and even a residence used by an archbishop.
The newspaper claims it was then that Pope decided that he could not carry on, declaring that he was “no longer suited” to the demands of the job during his resignation speech earlier this month.
With cack-handedness that marked public relations throughout Benedict’s term, the Vatican immediately issued a denial that almost invited more speculation.
"Neither the cardinals' commission nor I will make comments to confirm or deny the things that are said about this matter. Let each one assume his or her own responsibilities. We shall not be following up on the observations that are made about this," said Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
The media quickly latched onto to the simultaneous announcement on Friday of a transfer of Ettore Balestrero, a senior clergyman, to a new prestigious post in Colombia, saying it was intended to get him out of the Vatican after unnamed transgressions.
This forced Lombardi into making a second statement on the same day. The spokesman shot the insinuations down as "absurd, totally without foundation", saying the decision had been made weeks ago.
Both the report and the figure of Balestrero did not come out of the blue, but to the press they are a continuation of the scandals that rocked the Papacy last year.
Throughout 2012, the Pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, aided by a selection of powerful officials leaked documents to an Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi that confirmed the worst outsider prejudices about the Holy See. The Vatileaks exposed the Papacy’s spiritual home as a highly-factionalized breeding ground for gossip, plotting and dirty tricks (including an instance when one newspaper editor was removed from his post by a rival with the help of anonymous letters falsely alleging his homosexuality). Even those who leaked the revelations themselves were suspected to be jockeying for position within the Holy See.
"The Pope was never the same after that. It was like shooting Achilles in the heel," one insider told Reuters after the resignation was announced.
The quick trial of Gabriele by Vatican cardinals was seen as a whitewash (concerned only with the specifics of how he obtained the documents, not why) but Benedict did order a deeper investigation by three trusted cardinals.
It was apparently their report, which showed the situation as even worse than assumed, that tipped the Benedict’s hand.
The other insurmountable embarrassment of 2012 was the interconnected but separate failure of the Vatican Bank to get on the “white list” of Moneyval, the EU’s banking compliance commission that had criticized the lack of transparency at the institution (something Vatileaks amply confirmed).
The man who led the Vatican’s efforts? Ettore Balestrero.
For the critics the assorted facts compose paint a picture of a Pontiff forced to abandon his post, unable to stem the tide of revelations, and possibly facing censure for personal mistakes, if not in deeds, then in appointing corrupt men to high places.
Even one of the investigating cardinals, Julian Herranz, conceded that this might have been one of the “hypotheses”.
"He could content himself with doing very little except praying ... but because the people he had in place were not adequate, instead of removing them, he removed himself," said yet another insider to Reuters.
But the does the notion of a Pope on the verge of disgrace (not only due to Vatileaks, but possibly also as a result of the sexual abuse allegations rocking the church) really stand up?
In his statement the 85-year-old Benedict XVI said his ebbing “strength of mind and body” was the reason for his resignation.
"The pope's decision was made many months ago, after the trip to Mexico and Cuba [almost a year ago] and kept in an inviolable privacy that nobody could penetrate," wrote the official Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano.
It was on that trip to Mexico that the Pope fell and hurt his head while in an unfamiliar hotel room. He has also had a pacemaker installed in recent months.
But it is perhaps a description of the pontiff from his own biographer Peter Seewald, who saw him last at the end of 2012, which most vividly conveys his true state.
"His hearing had worsened. He couldn't see with his left eye. His body had become so thin that the tailors had difficulty keeping up with newly fitted clothes ... I'd never seen him so exhausted-looking, so worn down," Seewald recently wrote in the German magazine Focus.
This does not nullify the degree of decay at the Holy See, but perhaps draws a more nuanced portrait of Benedict’s final year.
There is little doubt that Benedict XVI served a calamitous eight years as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. His time in charge has lurched from public relations disasters, to damaging revelations, to endless lawsuits from all corners of the world.
The Vatican’s instinctive response to crisis situations has been to close ranks, hide information and try to deal with transgressions internally, something that simply amplifies the scale of any misdeed once the truth inevitably emerges in this telecommunications age.
Whatever his reported knowledge on theological matters, Pope Benedict was rarely a successful communicator, often on the defensive after making pronouncements on the most routine issues, and regarded as out-of-touch and uncharismatic.
But for all his flaws, no one has doubted the personal religious devotion of the pontiff (and none of the scandals incriminated him in anything other than passiveness in his dealing with problems).
Perhaps due to his age and inherent traditionalism, he was never the right man for the Papacy, but at least he knew his limitations.
Benedict learned from observing his close friend John Paul II in the last months of his Papacy in 2005, body trembling with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and voice barely above a whisper as he attempted to struggle through services in front of crowds of thousands.
For all the unexpectedness of his resignation, Benedict said as far back as in 2010 that he would step down as soon as he was unable to perform this job.
He has done as he promised, with his dignity intact.
By being the first Pope to leave his post alive in 600 years, Joseph Ratzinger may have angered the traditionalists (who say that being God’s representative on Earth isn’t a job you can just quit), but he may have also set an example to his successors that will help the Papacy avoid becoming a constant deathwatch as its decrepit heads are driven around the world in wheelchairs.
And for this he should be treated with respect, instead of having his motives queried and twisted by those pursuing their own agendas, however valid.
In the meantime, the world can switch its attention to the new man at the Vatican, who will hopefully be able to address the very problems Benedict XVI failed to overcome.
Igor Ogorodnev, RT