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Italian scandal addressed by the pope

VATICAN CITY — A scandal in Italy's Catholic Church has morphed into a tale of Vatican intrigue, complete with forged documents, reports of dueling cardinals and a papal admonishment Tuesday to put the matter to rest.

The scandal erupted in August, when the newspaper Il Giornale reported that it had court documents showing the editor of the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference had paid to settle charges that he harassed the wife of a man he was romantically pursuing.

The revelations were initially seen as retribution by Il Giornale, which is owned by Premier Silvio Berlusconi's brother, against the bishops' newspaper, Avvenire. The Catholic paper had harshly criticized the premier and demanded he answer questions about his purported liaisons with younger women.

Il Giornale accused Avvenire editor Dino Boffo of hypocrisy, saying the journalist had been fined in a plea-bargain several years ago for making harassing calls to the man's wife.

Prosecutors say Boffo made the calls, but they have denied the case involved a gay angle. Boffo acknowledged being fined in the case but said someone else had used his cell phone to make the calls. Amid the fallout, he resigned from Avvenire in September, saying he wanted to spare his family and the church further humiliation.

Three months later, Il Giornale's editor Vittorio Feltri — who had penned the initial articles — admitted the document implying Boffo is gay was falsified, and apologized in a front-page letter.

The scandal resurfaced last week when Feltri said the document in question had been given to him by an "institutional" church official whom he trusted.

Some Italian media suggested that the editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, essentially the pope's mouthpiece, was involved. Others suggested the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was behind it.

There have been long-running reports in the Italian media of battles between Bertone and the leadership of the Italian Bishops' Conference, particularly its previous head Cardinal Camillo Ruini. Italian news reports have said Bertone sought to wrest dealings with the Italian government away from the bishops' conference and had vetoed candidates for the conference leadership who he deemed were too powerful.

Italian newspapers routinely publish unsourced stories about machinations in the Vatican. Rarely, though, do such reports elicit thorough and high-ranking denials.

On Tuesday, however, Bertone issued a statement saying that reports of Vatican involvement were false and that Pope Benedict XVI himself "deplored these unjust and insulting attacks" that were "defaming the Holy See."

L'Osservatore Romano ran the statement on its front page with a note saying Benedict had approved the text and ordered it published.

The statement — unusual in its line-by-line denial of unsourced rumors — was confirmation that the case had reached the highest echelons of power in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, making clear that the pope had become personally involved.

"The Holy Father Benedict XVI, who has been kept constantly informed, deplores these unjust and injurious attacks, renews his complete faith in his collaborators, and prays that those who truly have the good of the Church to heart may work with all means to ensure that truth and justice triumph," the statement said.

Feltri, for his part, denied he had ever met Bertone or L'Osservatore's editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, much less obtained documents from them.