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Vatican battles to maintain secrecy ahead of conclave

Saint Peter's Basilica is pictured at the Vatican March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Saint Peter's Basilica is pictured at the Vatican March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican struggled on Thursday to contain leaks from its closed-door preparations for the next papal election, highlighting a gap between the Catholic Church's traditional secrecy and the 24/7 information age.

Details divulged from the debates appeared in Italian media again despite a Vatican move on Wednesday to influence reporting by ending news conferences by American cardinals that had begun to compete with its own daily briefings.

It was widely assumed that Italian cardinals were tipping off friendly journalists but the Vatican spokesman said it was wrong to point the finger at national groups.

He said all "princes of the Church" should tighten the vow of secrecy they took when the pre-conclave meeting began on Monday.

"If anyone knows who is violating this, they should say so," Rev. Federico Lombardi told journalists at his briefing. "It is up to the College of Cardinals to assume their responsibility and adapt a code of conduct."

"We are counting on the morality and responsibility of people," he added.

The cardinals have been holding preparatory meetings to ponder who among them could succeed Pope Benedict - who stepped down last week - as leader of the 1.2 billion member Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its history.

With its memory stretching back centuries, the Vatican bristles at any attempt to influence the papal vote, something that was once the prerogative of European Catholic powers who could veto candidates not to their liking.

But this culture of secrecy proved fatal in the sexual abuse crises of the past decade as once-cowed victims came forward to denounce predator priests and lawsuits and official probes dug up Church documents proving bishops had covered up for them.

CONTROL THE MESSAGE

The leaks from the meetings, where the cardinals discuss problems facing the Church, recounted how prelates were pushing for more details on mismanagement in the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Curia.

Newspapers named several speakers and detailed their remarks, worrying leading Curia cardinals and prompting them to urge the others to stop speaking to the media.

The U.S. cardinals, while informative in their briefings about the general atmosphere in the meetings, did not give away the kind of detailed information being leaked to Italian media.

"The cardinals in the Vatican Curia want to control the message. They're leaking to the Italian press," said Rev. Thomas Reese, a U.S. Jesuit scholar and author of "Inside the Vatican".

The U.S. briefings made clear the American cardinals wanted the new pope to end the infighting in the Roman bureaucracy.

"That's not the kind of message the folks in the Vatican Curia want out there," Reese said.

U.S. theologian George Weigel said the tensions over the media were not between the U.S. cardinals and the Curia, but rather a case of "the old Church versus the new Church".

The sexual abuse scandals in the U.S. had taught bishops there they must be transparent in their communications. "Others apparently haven't caught on to that," said Weigel, whose new book "Evangelical Catholicism" sets out plans for reform.

The Vatican's effort to restrict information, he said, was "a reversion to ingrained cultural and institutional habits here that have to be changed."

CONCLAVE DATE

Another point of contention is when to enter the legendary Sistine Chapel for the conclave, when the cardinals are cut off from all outside contact until they elect the pope. There will be 115 cardinals taking part this time.

Workmen, meanwhile, continued preparing the chapel containing Michelangelo's famous frescoes for the conclave.

They blurred its windows so one could look not inside from nearby Vatican buildings and readied two stoves - one to burn ballots and the either to send either black or white smoke out a chimney to tell the world if a pope has been elected or not after each ballot.

Several cardinals from outside Rome want more time to meet the potential candidates and get more information about the state of the Curia and the Church before they go in to vote.

"Originally, the people in the Curia wanted the election to happen more quickly because they feel they could control it," said Reese. The more time cardinals have to prepare, the less influence powerful Curia "kingmakers" will have, he explained.

A senior Curia official said the U.S. cardinals "looked like they wanted to be different from the others" by holding their own briefings and travelling together like a team to the general congregation meetings in a minibus.

He said the U.S. Church led by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan defended Catholic teaching and interests well, but many prelates in Rome saw candidates such as Milan's Angelo Scola or Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo as more suited to the papacy.

Despite the calls for more time, the Vatican still seems keen to open the conclave in the first part of next week so the new pope can be elected and installed in time to lead Holy Week services beginning with Palm Sunday on March 24.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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