updated 2/9/2010 2:08:30 PM ET 2010-02-09T19:08:30

The Vatican denied Tuesday that it leaked documents that led to the resignation of a prominent Catholic editor, intervening in a tale of ecclesiastical intrigue that has dominated Italian headlines for weeks.

The Vatican No. 2 issued a statement saying reports that Vatican officials leaked the documents were false and that Pope Benedict XVI himself "deplored these unjust and insulting attacks" that were "defaming the Holy See."

The statement — unusual in its line-by-line denial of unsourced rumors — was confirmation that what had been a strictly Italian church scandal had reached the highest echelons of power in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace and that the pope clearly wanted to put an end to it.

The intrigue began last summer, when Il Giornale newspaper published reports based on what it said were court documents saying the editor of Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, had been involved in a harassment case several years ago with homosexual overtones.

The revelations were initially seen as tit-for-tat retribution by Il Giornale, owned by Premier Silvio Berlusconi's brother, against Avvenire. The Catholic paper had harshly criticized the premier for his purported sex scandals with younger women.

Avvenire's editor, Dino Boffo, admitted he had been fined in a plea bargain agreement — details of which have never been publicly released — but he denied making harassing phone calls. Amid the fallout though, he resigned, 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 documents implying a gay angle to the case were false and apologized to Boffo 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.

That revelation fueled speculation in the Italian media that a high-ranking Vatican official had provided the document to embarrass his high-ranking counterparts at Avvenire's owners, the Italian Bishops' Conference.

Turf war
There have been long-running reports of territorial and other battles between the Vatican's secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and the leadership of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

In his statement Tuesday, Bertone said reports that the editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had provided the documents to Feltri were "unfounded."

"It seems clear from the proliferation of the most incredible assertions and hypotheses ... that everything rests on unfounded convictions, with the intention of gratuitously and calumniously attributing to the editor of 'Osservatore Romano' an unmotivated, unreasonable and malicious action," he wrote.

"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."

Italian newspapers routinely publish unsourced stories about the latest Italian political intrigue. They also publish unsourced reports about machinations in the Vatican. Rarely, though, do such reports elicit such a thorough and high-ranking denial as the one issued by Bertone.

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