According to religious watchers, the latest scandal is a struggle for power -- a plot by rebellious cardinals to unseat the Vatican's number two man.
ROME: Power-hungry cardinals, spies and a suspicious butler: “Vatileaks” is just the latest scandal to grip an institution dogged down the centuries by damning tales of greed, corruption and betrayal.
From clerical sex abuse scandals to accusations of money-laundering and ties with the mafia over the years, critics do not have to indulge in Dan Brown “Da Vinci Code” theories to accuse the Church of slipping from its moral code.
While rumours of wild sex parties may nowadays be more easily associated with former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, the tiny Vatican state in the heart of Rome was once a hotbed of lust and depravity.
10th century pope John XII, appointed aged just 18, is said to have indulged his teenage sex drive by throwing exotic orgies, sparking outraged religious observers to describe the Lateran palace, the papal home, as a whore house.
Benedict IX, accused by his enemies of being a rapist and a murderous “demon from hell,” reportedly whiled away his time in homosexual trysts before selling his papacy, trying to take it back again by force and being unceremoniously excommunicated.
Alexander VI, from the immensely powerful and nepotistic Borgia family, threw a famous banquet in Rome in 1501 at which 50 courtesans and cardinals reportedly won prizes for crawling around naked to pick up scattered chestnuts.
Some popes were elected as Italy’s elite jostled for power, while others gleefully used the papacy for personal — and sometime bizarre — vendettas.
Ninth century Pope Stephen VI has gone down in history for digging up his predecessor, propping his corpse up on a throne and putting him on trial for becoming pope illegally — before finding him guilty and tossing him into the Tiber.
Tolerance for bad behaviour did not extend to Pope Joan, who legend has it disguised herself as a man in the Middle Ages but was caught out when she gave birth, leading to a now-defunct tradition of checking under future popes’ robes.
While tales of prostitutes and poisoned chalices have subsided over the last few centuries, the Church has been rocked instead in recent years by a clerical abuse scandal which has revealed cases of paedophilia in parishes worldwide.
Thousands of victims have come forward to confront their abusers and accuse the Church of engaging in a systematic cover-up by moving suspected priests on to other parishes and endangering other children rather than reporting them.
The Holy See has also been hit hard by accusations of mafia ties, fraud and money-laundering within the Vatican bank, known as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR).
In 1982 the IOR was caught up in one of Italy’s biggest fraud cases when Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano — of which it was the main shareholder — collapsed.
Banco Ambrosiano’s chairman Roberto Calvi, known as “God’s Banker” because of his ties with the Vatican, was found hanging from a London bridge.
More recently, the IOR’s head was ousted in an apparent battle over tax transparency as the institution failed to shake off its reputation for opacity.
The Italian mafia’s use of the IOR to launder money is also thought to be a key clue to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Vatican employee’s daughter in 1983 — a conspiracy-filled enigma that has gripped Italy.
The tomb of an Italian gangster suspected of her murder was excavated in May in an attempt to find clues to the girl’s fate. He was buried in a basilica — a rare privilege thought to be due to his shady Vatican connections.
Over the last few months, it has been the “Vatileaks” scandal which has hit the headlines around the world, after leaks of secret Vatican documents to the press enraged the Holy See and led to the arrest of the pope’s personal butler.
It is not the first time the tiny state has been infiltrated.
The Nazis had Pope Pius XII’s personal telephone tapped — though an apparent plan to smuggle spies in dressed as monks failed — and during the Cold War the Vatican’s cloisters were saturated with Soviet spooks.
According to religious watchers, the latest scandal is a struggle for power — a plot by rebellious cardinals to unseat the Vatican’s number two man and begin preparing the way for their chosen candidate to become future pope.
The leaked papal documents, filched directly from the pope’s desk, refer to the clerical abuse and IOR controversies, as well as the kidnapping.
With the Vatican investigation ongoing, and rumours the butler may be about to spill the beans on his fellow whistle-blowers, the latest scandal may be far from over.