The Vatican has condemned Italian media reports of intrigue, corruption and blackmail among senior prelates, saying these could be a form of pressure to sway voting in next month's conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor.
Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, on Saturday dismissed as "gossip, disinformation and sometimes calumny" the reports, which are linked to an investigation by a committee of cardinals last year over a series of damaging leaks of confidential papal documents.
"There are people who are trying to take advantage of this moment of surprise and disorientation of weak spirits to sow confusion and discredit the Church and its government," Lombardi said in a statement on Vatican radio's website.
Earlier, The Panorama weekly and The Repubblica daily newspapers reported that Benedict's decision to resign was triggered by the secret report compiled by three retired cardinals.
The report allegedly contained details of corruption and of blackmail attempts against gay Vatican clergymen, as well as favouritism based on gay relationships.
Both publications quoted a source with knowledge of the investigation as saying that the cardinals' conclusions "revolve around the sixth and seventh commandments," namely "Thou shall not commit adultery" and "Thou shall not steal."
Referring to the upcoming papal election, Lombardi said there was "unacceptable pressure to condition the vote of one or other member of the college of cardinals, who might be disliked for one reason or another".
"People who think in terms of money, sex and power and see different realities through this prism cannot see the Church any differently," he said.
Last year, Benedict appointed the three retired cardinals to investigate, in parallel with a police inquiry, a scandal known as "Vatileaks", which led to the conviction and later pardoning of the pope's former butler Paolo Gabriele.
The secret report was to be for the pope's eyes only, but Italian media reported they will also share their conclusions with the cardinals who will elect the next pope, ahead of the pontiff's resignation next week.
At his final public mass last week, Benedict himself condemned "religious hypocrisy" and urged an end to "individualism and rivalry".
"The face of the church ... is at times disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church," he said, without elaborating.
The run-up to conclaves to elect a new pope are often accompanied by rumours and gossip in Italian media, as rival factions battle for influence.
There was a twist on Friday when Benedict replaced Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the Secretariat of State with a highly influential role in Vatican diplomacy and the Vatican bank's foreign relations.
The 47-year-old is being sent as Vatican envoy to Colombia - which could be seen as a demotion.
Lombardi said the suggestion that the pope had made the appointment to get Balestrero out of the Vatican was "absurd, totally without foundation".
He said the appointment had been decided weeks ago and that the Vatican had waited for the Colombian government's official agreement before announcing it.