(Photo: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)
Pope Benedict XVI explained his decision to step down as he delivered his final public prayer ceremony Sunday, the day after the Vatican secretariat of state strongly denounced "unverified, unverifiable, or completely false news stories" linking the pontiff's resignation to scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.
"The Lord is calling me to go on top of the hill, to dedicate myself once more to prayer and meditation," the pope said, addressing thousands at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on Sunday. "But this does not mean to abandon the church," he was quoted by media as saying.
Earlier this month, Benedict announced he was resigning, saying, "Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
However, a rumor that went viral online claimed that Benedict resigned because of legal action being taken against him over his alleged involvement in the Church's priest sex abuse scandal. Italian news reports also sought to attribute the pope's stepping down to a conspiracy theory.
The Vatican secretariat of state responded Saturday to such reports in a strongly worded statement, saying sections of the media were trying to put pressure of public opinion on the election of a new pope.
"Through the course of the centuries, Cardinals have faced many forms of pressure," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, reading out the statement to reporters. "If in the past, the so-called powers (i.e. states) exerted pressures on the election of the Pope, today there is an attempt to do this through public opinion that is often based on judgments that do not typically capture the spiritual aspect of the moment that the church is living," he said.
"It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the conclave ... that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions," Lombardi added.
Lombardi refused to specify how the media was trying to influence the election.
Addicting Info, a left-wing website devoted to debunking right-wing ideas, posted a story last Thursday claiming that there was an arrest warrant from an unknown European country.
"…the Pope, whose given name is Joseph Ratzinger, has a meeting with the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano on February 23 to beg for immunity against prosecution for allegations of child sex crimes," wrote Shannon Barber of Addicting Info. "Apparently, this hastily arranged meeting, and likely the resignation as well, are the result of a supposed note received by the Vatican from an undisclosed European government that stated that there are plans to issue a warrant for the Pope's arrest."
In addition, some Italian newspapers carried the contents of a secret dossier prepared for the pope by three cardinals who investigated the origins of the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents, according to Fox news. The reports suggested the revelations in the dossier, given to Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign.
The Rome newspaper La Repubblica reported that the investigation uncovered a blackmail plot targeting gay clergy inside the Vatican.
In his final comments to the Curia, the central governing body, on Saturday, the pope said the "evil, suffering and corruption" have defaced God's creation.
The pontiff will leave office on Feb. 28.