The Vatican alleged yesterday that Pope Francis was the victim of an internal conspiracy to undermine his authority after a false story was leaked claiming he had a brain tumour.
The front-page story was published by Quotidiano Nazionale, an Italian newspaper, on Wednesday, but indignantly denied by Vatican spokesmen.
Cardinals and others within the Catholic Church hierarchy suggested that the unfounded story was an attempt by “enemies” of the 78-year-old Pope to discredit him and to suggest his judgment was impaired.
They said the timing of the leak was deeply suspicious as it came just days before the conclusion of the Synod, a three-week meeting of 270 bishops and cardinals which has been discussing delicate issues such as divorce and the Church’s attitude to homosexuality.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said: “The moment (that was) chosen reveals an attempt to raise a cloud of dust in order to manipulate.” Walter Kasper, a liberal cardinal closely in step with the Pope’s views, said: “Certain people, both inside and outside the Church, are nervous about the outcome of the Synod.”
The tumour story was an attempt to “upset” the final days of deliberation at the gathering, the cardinal added.
Italian newspapers speculated about “the shadow of a plot”. “Who wants the Pope dead?” read the headline of Il Giornale, a conservative daily, which said the Church was “in chaos”.
Massimo Franco, a leading Vatican expert, said that whoever had leaked the tumour story was aiming to undermine the “legitimacy” of the Pope.
“This nasty story seems to have been concocted by the enemies of Jorge Mario Bergoglio [as the Pope was known before his election in 2013] to let him know that he is in their sights,” he wrote in Corriere della Sera.
The underlying aim may have been to cast doubt on the Pope’s mental acuity, insinuating that his actions and statements were a result of “his brain not functioning properly”, Mr Franco suggested. It remained unclear who exactly was behind the alleged plot. Most Vatican observers said they believed that if it really was engineered by insiders, it may have been the work of conservatives at the Synod.
In its story, Quotidiano Nazionale claimed that the Pope had been secretly visited at the Vatican by a Japanese surgeon who had found a benign, treatable, brain tumour.
The Holy See issued three increasingly exasperated denials of the story and the named brain cancer specialist, Dr Takanori Fukushima, released a statement saying that he had never medically examined the Pope.
The Rev Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, said: “As all can see, the Pope continues to exercise his intense activity without interruption and in an absolutely normal way.”
However, Quotidiano Nazionale stood by its story. Andrea Cangini, the editor, said his journalists had worked for months to double-check the information and make sure their sources were reliable.
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