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Easter’s Way of the Cross procession in Rome has been led by Pope Francis, with prayers for the poor and the abandoned.

Via Crucis ceremony marks Christians’ commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday. Tens of thousands of people lined the route near the 2,000-year-old Colosseum.

Pope Francis heard the Vatican’s official preacher deliver a sermon denouncing greed and the love of money.

The procession is part of the Church’s Easter triduum festival.

Pope Francis urged the crowd to “remember all the abandoned people” and spoke of the “monstrosity of man” when he lets evil guide him.

Easter's Way of the Cross procession in Rome has been led by Pope Francis, with prayers for the poor and the abandoned

Easter’s Way of the Cross procession in Rome has been led by Pope Francis, with prayers for the poor and the abandoned

“Evil won’t have the last word, but love, mercy and pardon will” he added at the end of the Way of the Cross.

The sermon, by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, spoke of the injustice of human trafficking and suffering caused by environmental damage.

“Money is behind every evil in our society” the preacher declared.

The procession route included 14 stages, known as Stations of the Cross, at which specially written meditations were recited.

One meditation touched on the plight of child soldiers, while another recalled the deaths of migrants trying to reach more prosperous countries.

Other meditations criticized overcrowding in prisons and the treatment of the elderly.

Immigrants, prisoners, former drug addicts and elderly people were among those who helped carry a large cross between the different stations.

On Saturday night, Pope Francis will celebrate an Easter vigil Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.

Easter services will then conclude on Sunday with a Mass celebrating Jesus’s resurrection.

Pope Francis will deliver his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message.

On Thursday, the Pope washed the feet of 12 disabled people in Rome as part of the Maundy Thursday service commemorating Christ’s Last Supper.

Pope Francis broke with tradition by washing the feet of several women and a Muslim man in a ceremony traditionally restricted to men only.

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Pope Francis has made his strongest condemnation yet of child abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church”.

The statement, made in a meeting with a child rights group, is being described as his strongest the issue so far.

Last month, Pope Francis strongly defended the Roman Catholic Church’s record on tackling abuse by priests, following UN criticism.

Pope Francis said he felt responsible for the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, and issued an unprecedented apology

Pope Francis said he felt responsible for the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, and issued an unprecedented apology

The Pope set up a committee last year to organize help for victims of clerical abuse but has been accused by some Catholics of dragging his feet in acknowledging the extent of the moral and mental damage caused by paedophile priests.

He said that the number of priests who had committed abuses were “quite a few in number”, although “obviously not compared to the number of all the priests”.

“We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed,” he said, adding: “We have to be even stronger”.

Alessandra Aula of International Catholic Child Bureau, the children’s non-governmental organization that was at the Vatican for the Pope’s address, welcomed his comments.

The Catholic Church has faced numerous allegations of child abuse by priests around the world and criticism over inadequate responses by bishops.

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President Barack Obama has met Pope Francis for the first time during a European tour dominated by the crisis in Ukraine.

Barack Obama flew into Rome after three days of talks with world leaders in the Netherlands and Brussels.

In a recent interview published before their meeting, Barack Obama described Pope Francis as a man who “lived the Christian Gospel”.

Barack Obama has met Pope Francis for the first time during his European tour

Barack Obama has met Pope Francis for the first time during his European tour

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Barack Obama has been inspired by Pope Francis’ messages of inclusion and equality.

Ben Rhodes said Barack Obama planned to express his appreciation for the pontiff’s leadership.

Barack Obama and Pope Francis have very different views on subjects such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage, but at this meeting they are likely to emphasize what they share.

After meeting the Pope, Barack Obama is due to meet both Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and PM Matteo Renzi.

Barack Obama is accompanied in Italy by Secretary of State John Kerry.

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The Vatican is celebrating Pope Francis’ first year in office.

The pontiff is currently on a week-long spiritual retreat with cardinals and bishops in the Alban Hills near Rome.

Italian opinion polls give Pope Francis the highest popularity rating of any recent pontiff.

Pope Francis is the first Latin American – and the first Jesuit – to lead the Roman Catholic Church.

Since taking office, pilgrims have been arriving in Rome in unprecedented numbers.

Pope Francis is also riding high on social media, with 11 million following him in nine languages on Twitter.

His approval rating has remained high despite a recent UN report accusing the Catholic Church of systematically covering up for tens of thousands of child-abusing priests reported to the Vatican.

Vatican is celebrating Pope Francis’ first year in office

Vatican is celebrating Pope Francis’ first year in office

The Pope himself has denounced any cult of personality.

He recently told Corriere della Sera: “Portraying the pope as a kind of superman, a type of star, it seems offensive.”

Pope Francis, 77, has appointed new advisers to help him run the Church and is planning major reforms of Vatican finances and of the scandal-hit Vatican bank.

For the moment there is no sign of a change in official Catholic teaching on artificial contraception or on the celibacy rule for priests.

However, the Pope’s compassionate attitude – especially his outreach to believers who have abandoned going to Mass and to divorced Catholics banned from receiving communion – is not universally admired by traditionalist cardinals.

Likewise his attitude towards gay people – Pope Francis says that he is not going to judge them – contrasts strongly with that of his predecessor Pope Benedict, who called homosexuality “intrinsically evil”.

Thursday’s anniversary is not being marked in any official way, a move that Vatican-watchers say is in keeping with the Pope’s tendency to eschew pomp and ceremony.

The decision to celebrate the anniversary quietly is a sound alternative to what almost certainly would have been a media frenzy if Pope Francis had decided to mark the anniversary in public, correspondents say.

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The UN watchdog for children’s rights denounced the Holy See for adopting policies which allowed priests to abuse thousands of children.

The UN has said that the Vatican should “immediately remove” all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers.

In a report, it also criticized Vatican attitudes towards homos**uality, contraception and abortion.

The Vatican responded by saying it would examine the report – but also accused its authors of interference.

A group representing the victims of abuse by priests in the US welcomed the report.

The UN has said that the Vatican should "immediately remove" all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers

The UN has said that the Vatican should “immediately remove” all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers

In its findings, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) said the Holy See should open its files on members of the clergy who had “concealed their crimes” so that they could be held accountable by the authorities.

It said it was gravely concerned that the Holy See had not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, and expressed its “deepest concern about child sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic churches who operate under the authority of the Holy See, with clerics having been involved in the s**ual abuse of tens of thousands of children worldwide”.

It also lambasted the “practice of offenders’ mobility”, referring to the transfer of child abusers from parish to parish within countries, and sometimes abroad.

The UN report called on a Vatican commission created by Pope Francis in December to investigate all cases of child abuse “as well as the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them”.

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According to the figures released by the Vatican, more than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013, compared to 2.3 million for former Pope Benedict in all of 2012.

The figures were based on the number of tickets issued for papal events where they are needed, such as general audiences, Masses and private audiences.

They were also based on estimates of the number of people at events where tickets are not needed, such as his weekly appearance from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican did not issue comparative figures on Thursday but figures released on January 4, 2013 showed that some 2.3 million people attended all events presided by Benedict in 2012.

Figures released last month which were limited to the number of people who attended weekly general audiences showed that Pope Francis had drawn around four times as many people in about 9 and a half months of 2013 than Pope Benedict had in all of 2012. Pope Francis was elected on March 13, 2013, after Pope Benedict’s resignation in February.

More than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013

More than 6.6 million people attended the papal events presided by Pope Francis from his election in March to the end of 2013

Pope Francis, who last month was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine, has drawn people to the Vatican because of his outgoing, simple and friendly style. Pope Benedict was more reserved and far less spontaneous.

The Vatican said the figures released on Thursday did not include the crowds that turned out to see the pope during his trips to Brazil, and to Assisi and Lampedusa in Italy.

More than 3 million people attended the pope’s final event of the Brazil trip on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013.

The crowds at Pope Francis’ general audiences and Sunday addresses have often topped 100,000, forcing police to close off the boulevard leading to the Vatican to accommodate more people.

Tickets to audiences and Masses are issued for free by the Vatican’s Prefecture of the Pontifical Household and usually distributed through parishes and Church institutions.

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Pope Francis will set up a Vatican committee to fight abuse of children in the Catholic Church and offer help to victims.

The announcement, by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, follows a meeting between Pope Francis and his eight cardinal advisers.

It comes days after the Vatican refused a UN request for information on alleged abuse by priests, nuns or monks.

Pope Francis has said dealing with abuse is vital for the Church’s credibility.

Earlier this week the Pope expressed his compassion for the many victims of abuse by priests around the world.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the proposed panel of experts could provide codes of conduct for clergymen, guidelines for Church officials and better checks for would-be priests.

Pope Francis will set up a Vatican committee to fight abuse of children in the Catholic Church and offer help to victims

Pope Francis will set up a Vatican committee to fight abuse of children in the Catholic Church and offer help to victims

“Up until now there has been so much focus on the judicial parts of this but the pastoral part is very, very important. The Holy Father is concerned about that,” he said.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley added that the move was in line with the approach of the former Pope, Benedict XVI, who referred to the “filth” in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict was, however, accused of failing to do enough to address the problem.

He said the new committee was suggested by the council of cardinals, which was convened to discuss reforms to the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis approved it on Thursday, according to AFP news agency.

The archdiocese of Boston was the centre of a child abuse scandal involving Catholic priests in the US in 2002. It ultimately led to the resignation of the archbishop at the time.

The Catholic Church has faced a raft of allegations of child abuse by priests around the world and criticism over inadequate responses by bishops.

Earlier this year the Pope strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition of crimes against minors to include abuse of children.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child put a wide-ranging questionnaire to the Holy See – the city state’s diplomatic entity – last July, asking for detailed information about the particulars of all abuse cases notified to the Vatican since 1995.

The Vatican refused, saying the cases were the responsibility of the judicial systems of countries where abuse took place.

Vatican officials are due to be questioned about child abuse, among other issues, by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January.

Pope Francis has decided to put on public display nine tiny fragments of bone which may belong to St Peter, the world’s first Pope.

The fragments were placed in a case on the altar during an open air mass in St Peter’s Square.

The bones reputed to be of St Peter were held aloft by Pope Francis at mass on Sunday – the first time the relics have ever been shown to the public.

Discovered during the excavation of tombs under St Peter’s Basilica in the 1940s, the alleged bones of the saint and apostle who lived 2,000 years ago – and who is considered the first pope – have always been stored in the chapel of the papal apartment.

But to mark the end of the Vatican’s Year of Faith, during which 8.5 million people have visited St Peter’s tomb, the bronze box containing the fragments was brought into St Peter’s Square for an open air mass on Sunday.

Placed on the altar, the box was opened, revealing the fragments – each measuring about an inch long – laid on an ivory base and held down with wire. Pope Francis first wafted incense towards the bones, then held the box aloft during the mass, although he did not refer to them.

The Catholic Church has long been undecided on whether the bones are truly those of St Peter, even though, in 1968 archeologist Margherita Guarducci persuaded Pope Paul VI to say the bones had been “identified in a way we can hold to be convincing”.

Pope Francis has decided to put on public display nine tiny fragments of bone which may belong to St Peter, the world's first Pope

Pope Francis has decided to put on public display nine tiny fragments of bone which may belong to St Peter, the world’s first Pope

Prof. Margherita Guarducci had noticed Greek graffiti near the excavated tomb graffiti that she translated as “Peter is here”, while tests on the bones showed they came from a man in his 60s. But her conclusion was rejected by fellow experts involved in the dig.

A Latin inscription on the outside of the bronze box in which the bones are contained states they are “considered” to be St Peter’s.

Ahead of the unveiling, archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the pontifical council for the promotion of new evangelization, said the relics were merely “traditionally recognized” as belonging to Saint Peter.

“It has finally been decided to produce the bones for the public, but these relics have a low profile at the Vatican,” said Marco Ansaldo, a Vatican expert at Italy’s La Repubblica.

“It seems clear the Vatican is not yet sure about the relics and is therefore rather embarrassed” he added.

The Vatican also has an ambivalent view of the Turin Shroud, the length of cloth bearing the image of a man, which was reputedly used to wrap the corpse of Christ. Without confirming if they believe the shroud is genuine, Vatican officials say it has earned its role as an object of veneration.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that producing the bones on Sunday was “a way to feel spiritually close to the story of the tomb and of the apostle. There is a serious possibility they are St Peter’s bones, but we don’t go beyond that”.

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The Vatican has announced today it is launching its own official cricket club as part of efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue.

The St Peter’s Cricket Club is the brainchild of Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy.

John McCarthy described it as an example of “sporting diplomacy” which would present the opportunity to play the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

The next stage is to select an official cricket team.

John McCarthy estimates that there are between 250 and 350 potential players from around the world studying in seminaries and religious universities in Rome – many of them from cricket loving countries.

The Vatican has launched its own official cricket club as part of efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue

The Vatican has launched its own official cricket club as part of efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue

The board will stage a limited-overs tournament which will give students and priests a chance to compete for a place on the team, to be known as the Vatican XI.

The team will sport the official colors of the tiny city-state – yellow and white. Their jackets will have the seal of the papacy – two crossed keys.

Speaking at the launch, Monsignor Melchor Sanchez, who is the honorary president of St Peter’s Cricket Club said “this represents the council’s desire to go to the peripheries of the world that Pope Francis has spoken of.”

And the chairman of the club, Father Theodore Mascarenhas, an Indian priest known for his off-spin bowling, was confident about the Church’s skills.

“The team will be strong enough to beat anyone in the world,” Father Theodore Mascarenhas said.

Pope Francis is known to like soccer. He is a fan of the San Lorenzo football club in his native Argentina.

But Father Theodore Mascarenhas said the Pope – who he described as an open man – would embrace a new sport.

“I think cricket is another thing that would be part of that openness.”

The St Peter’s Cricket Club has already 650] laid down its first challenge to the Church of England and asked for a match at Lord’s in September next year.

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The Vatican has decided to withdraw from sale 6,000 copies of a new papal medal on which the name of Jesus was misspelled.

In an inscription around the edge of the coin, Jesus was spelt with an L instead of a J.

The word "Jesus" is misspelt as "Lesus" in the upper right-hand section of the coin

The word “Jesus” is misspelt as “Lesus” in the upper right-hand section of the coin

Keen-eyed experts snapped up a handful of the coins, which were struck in gold, silver and bronze by the Italian mint, before the mistake was noticed.

Vatican coins and medals bearing the face of Pope Francis are bought by collectors all over the world.

New medals are struck when every new pope is elected and they provide a useful source of income for the Vatican, which is undergoing a major spending review under the leadership of Pope Francis.

As news of the mistake travelled, social media users cracked jokes about this new religious figure, “Lesus” Christ. “I blame the Lesuits,” went one tweet while another had “Let us pray Lesus”.

Vatican has announced it is offering “indulgences” to followers of Pope Francis’ tweets.

The church’s granted indulgences reduce the time Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after they have confessed and been absolved of their sins.

The remissions got a bad name in the Middle Ages because unscrupulous churchmen sold them for large sums of money. But now indulgences are being applied to the 21st century.

However, a senior Vatican official warned web-surfing Catholics that indulgences still required a dose of old-fashioned faith, and that paradise was not just a few mouse clicks away.

“You can’t obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine,” Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate’s house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on July 22, can also win an indulgence.

Vatican has announced it is offering "indulgences" to followers of Pope Francis' tweets

Vatican has announced it is offering “indulgences” to followers of Pope Francis’ tweets

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the “rites and pious exercises” of the event on television, radio and through social media.

“That includes following Twitter,” said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis’ Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers.

“But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet.”

In its decree, the penitentiary said that getting an indulgence would hinge on the beneficiary having previously confessed and being “truly penitent and contrite”.

Praying while following events in Rio de Janeiro online would need to be carried out with “requisite devotion”, it suggested.

Apart from the papal Twitter account, the Vatican has launched an online news portal supported by an app, a Facebook page, and it plans to use the online social networking site Pinterest.

“What really counts is that the tweets the Pope sends from Brazil or the photos of the Catholic World Youth Day that go up on Pinterest produce authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of everyone,” said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli.

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The Italian Football Federation has announced they will play Argentina in a friendly match to honor the soccer-loving Argentinean Pope Francis.

The match will be held August 14 in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.

Pope Francis will watch the match not far away from the Vatican with audiences from both sides, according to the Associated Press.

It’s a long-awaited announcement for Italian manager Cesare Prandelli.  The 55-year-old stated outwardly back in March that he would be ecstatic over a matchup of these two countries for the pope.

The Italian Football Federation has announced they will play Argentina in a friendly match to honor the soccer-loving Argentinean Pope Francis

The Italian Football Federation has announced they will play Argentina in a friendly match to honor the soccer-loving Argentinean Pope Francis

“We’ve played friendlies with all the best national teams, only Argentina is missing,” Cesare Prandelli said back on March 27 following a World Cup qualifier with Malta.

“If we could arrange it, it would be nice to have an audience with the pope, who comes from Buenos Aires and loves football, and then go all together with both squads on one bus to the stadium. I couldn’t dream of anything better.”

The matchup has plenty of meaning for the religious Cesare Prandelli.  He brought his whole coaching staff out on a trio of half-hour long nighttime trips to a Polish monastery during the European championships last year.

It’s been a while since these two sides met.  Their last meeting was in 2001, also a friendly where Argentina came out on top 2-1.  Prior to that, Argentina knocked out Italy in the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup on penalties, led by Diego Maradona.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican.

The pontiff also said there was a “stream of corruption”, according to reports in Catholic media.

Pope Francis is said to have made the remarks during a private meeting with a group of Latin American Catholic clerics.

The clerics wrote up a report of the conversation that then appeared on the Chilean website Reflection and Liberation.

According to the report, Pope Francis was extremely open as he discussed problems at the Vatican.

He is said to have told the Latin American delegation that there were good, holy men in the administration, but that there was also corruption.

The Vatican would have to “see what we can do” about the “gay lobby” operating in the bureaucracy, he said.

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a "gay lobby" inside the Vatican

Pope Francis has acknowledged the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican

“It is true, it is there,” the report quotes Pope Francis as saying.

In the days leading up to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in February, the Italian media carried many un-sourced reports that gay Vatican clergymen had been working together to advance their personal interests, leaving the Holy See vulnerable to blackmail.

There were even suggestions that the situation had influenced Benedict’s decision to resign.

At the time, the Vatican vigorously denied all the rumors.

It has so far declined to make any comment regarding the Pope’s reported remarks, other than that the audience with the Latin American clerics was private.

An organization representing the clerics, known by its Spanish acronym CLAR, has said it has apologized to the Pope for the publication of the report.

CLAR said in a statement that it “deeply regretted the publication of a text which refers to the conversation with the Holy Father”.

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The Vatican has denied claims that Pope Francis performed an exorcism, after TV 2000 images showed a man apparently reacting to the pontiff putting his hands on his head.

The encounter – during last Sunday Mass – was shown on a TV channel owned by the Italian bishops’ conference.

The station quoted exorcists as saying there was “no doubt” Pope Francis had either performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from the devil.

Its director later apologized for “having altered the truth”.

The Pope’s spokesman said he “did not intend to perform any exorcism”.

“Rather as he frequently does with the sick or suffering who come his way, he simply intended to pray for a suffering person,” said Federico Lombardi in a statement.

The footage shows a young man, who is in a wheelchair, opening his mouth and either screaming or breathing deeply as Pope Francis puts his hands on his head and prays for him during the Mass in St Peter’s Square.

TV 2000 images show a man apparently reacting to Pope Francis putting his hands on his head

TV 2000 images show a man apparently reacting to Pope Francis putting his hands on his head

The man then convulses and slumps in his chair.

On Tuesday, the director of the TV station which broadcast the pictures, TV 2000, apologized for the report, saying: “I don’t want to attribute to him a gesture that he didn’t intend to perform.”

“I apologize for having altered the truth of the facts and for the people who are involved, in particular I apologize to the Holy Father,” said Dino Boffo.

Religious figures in Rome had insisted the act had been an exorcism.

They included the Vatican’s former chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, who was quoted by Italian media as saying the act “was an exorcism alright” and that he had since performed his own exorcism on the young man, who he said was called Angelo.

Exorcism is the ancient practice of driving out demons or evil spirits from a person or place they are thought to possess. It is practiced by some Roman Catholics but treated with deep skepticism by others.

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Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive.

Cardinals have been meeting for a second day to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month.

The 115 electors are shut off in Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and a nearby residence until two-thirds agree on a leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Further votes will be held this afternoon.

Starting with today, the cardinals will vote four times daily until a single candidate garners a two-thirds majority, at which point the smoke coming from the Sistine Chapel chimney will be white.

Before the conclave began there was no clear frontrunner to replace Pope Benedict.

Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive

Black smoke has poured from Sistine Chapel chimney, signaling that the second and third votes in the Papal election have been inconclusive

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Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first leader of the Catholic Church to resign since the Middle Ages has left a slew of unanswered questions.

In an official statement, Pope Benedict blamed his resignation on advancing years, saying declining health had left him unable to properly lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

“Having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said.

An official spokesman later added that the Pope is suffering from a “decline in vigor, both of the body and spirit”.

To a degree, that’s probably true. Italian newspapers have revealed Pope Benedict suffered a “serious fall” this year and underwent heart surgery in November to replace a pacemaker fitted after an earlier heart attack.

But in a world governed by tradition, serving Popes don’t step aside, no matter how ailing.

Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, served for 27 years, surviving an assassination attempt. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001, Pope John Paul II suffered severe difficulties speaking and even sitting up. But he carried on until his death in 2005.

The last pope who failed to carry on until the bitter end was Gregory XII, who was forced out in 1415.

The last to go voluntarily was Celestine V, who resigned in 1294.

But if the fact of the Pope’s departure is unusual, its timing looks downright suspicious.

The Vatican claims Pope Benedict had been considering the move for almost a year, praying intensively as he decided whether to quit.

But if so, why did he recently allow officials to schedule an official tour of Brazil for July?

Why, too, insiders wonder, shortly before Christmas did Pope Benedict promote one of the Vatican’s most glamorous figures, fellow German Georg Ganswein, to Archbishop and the high-profile position of Prefect of his Pontifical Household?

At the time of his appointment, 56-year-old Georg Ganswein – who is known as “the Black Forest Adonis” and “Gorgeous George” on account of his good looks – was billed as the perfect right-hand man to protect an ageing Pontiff from the daily grind of Vatican politics.

Georg Ganswein then appeared on the cover of last month’s Italian Vanity Fair, billed as the “George Clooney of Catholicism”.

The article pointed out that papal aides are promoted to archbishop when an ailing Pope wishes to create an unofficial “gatekeeper”. But if Pope Benedict knew he was about to quit, why appoint Georg Ganswein to this position?

The Pope’s resignation also comes at a time of scrutiny over the Vatican’s alleged links to the world of organized crime.

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first leader of the Catholic Church to resign since the Middle Ages has left a slew of unanswered questions

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first leader of the Catholic Church to resign since the Middle Ages has left a slew of unanswered questions

Last summer saw the scandalous trial of Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict’s butler, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing confidential documents from his master’s desk and passing them to a journalist.

The papers were given to Gianluigi Nuzzi, a reporter whose “Vatileaks” scoop alleged corruption at the Vatican Bank, including the laundering of $250 million on behalf of the Mafia.

In the wake of Gianluigi Nuzzi’s revelations, the bank’s president was forced to resign. A replacement is due to be announced in the coming months.

His identity is of great concern to organized criminals, who fear the “wrong” appointee will attempt to wipe clean the tarnished bank’s slate by confessing a raft of previous financial misdeeds.

Pope Benedict was expected to usher in just such a new broom; his successor may not. The fact his departure is good news for the mafia has left many suspicious.

But the most curious figure in the shock resignation is Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Angelo Sodano are hardly allies. Indeed, for years they have been regarded as bitter rivals, clashing repeatedly as they each climbed the slippery pole of the hierarchy.

Months after Benedict became Pope, Angelo Sodano resigned as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, its most senior political and diplomatic post, after 12 years in the high-profile job. This hardly makes him an obvious candidate for a public papal embrace.

The second source of suspicion is Angelo Sodano’s professed surprise at Monday’s news of resignation.

Several Vatican insiders, including Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, a top contender to be the next Pope, say Angelo Sodano learned of the coming resignation in Benedict’s private quarters the previous Friday.

If that is the case, then why did the Cardinal describe Pope Benedict’s departure, three days later, as a bolt from the blue?

And what really happened at the Friday meeting? Though held in secret, reports in the Italian press claim there was a heated argument between the men over the fraught question of how the Church should deal with clergy accused of sexual abuse.

In recent years, Pope Benedict has taken a relatively hard line on dealing with paedophile priests, an issue that has damaged the hierarchy’s reputation.

Not only has he apologized publicly to victims, he has also insisted that the Vatican, rather than individual diocese, should be in charge of investigating future abuse complaints, referring them to the police whenever possible.

Angelo Sodano takes a different view. The cardinal has been reluctant to proceed with investigations into suspect priests over the years, and famously used a prayer during Easter Mass in 2010 to describe the complaints of victims of abuse as ‘petty gossip’.

He has clashed with Benedict over this issue several times over the years. In 1995, they fell out over how to deal with Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, who resigned as Archbishop of Vienna after being accused of molesting young men.

Benedict advised the then Pope, John Paul II, to issue an apology over the appalling allegations, which were later proven. Angelo Sodano, as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, chose to over-rule him.

Then, in 1998, Angelo Sodano instructed Benedict – then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – to drop an investigation into multiple counts of abuse by Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a holy order called The Legionaries of Christ. In a plot twist worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a Catholic journal uncovered evidence that Angelo Sodano had issued the order after receiving $15,000 from the order for being its “cheerleader”.

Benedict waited eight years for revenge. In 2006, he removed Marcial Maciel Degollado – later revealed to have fathered several children by different women – from his post. Angelo Sodano’s resignation from Vatican Secretary of State came soon afterwards.

Yet while it seems Angelo Sodano had several reasons to seek Pope Benedict’s resignation, that doesn’t necessarily mean he had the ability to execute such an audacious plot.

A hostile cardinal seeking to bring down a Pope would have to unearth a catastrophically devastating scandal from his past.

With Benedict’s childhood in the Hitler Youth and long career in a Church ridden with sex abuse allegations, there are avenues for attack. But eight years of scrutiny from the media has left little mud sticking to him.

There is a dubious incident from 1980, when as Archbishop of Munich he transferred a paedophile priest to another parish. And there have been complaints that during the Eighties and Nineties, in his role as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he ignored complaints of abuse.

Getting the Pope to resign would have taken something more damning. Did Angelo Sodano stumble on a scandal? It seems unlikely.

A more plausible explanation is perhaps that constant exposure to Vatican politics had left the monkish and cerebral Benedict tired and desperate to find an escape.

“Maybe an unpleasant meeting with Sodano pushed him over the edge,” says a veteran insider.

“The Vatileaks scandal showed the place to be completely dysfunctional. It’s been that way throughout history.”

As for Angelo Sodano, he’s no doubt hoping one piece of Vatican history repeats itself. The last time a College of Cardinals chose a new Pope was in 2005 and Benedict was Dean of the College of Cardinals. This time, of course, the dean is none other than Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month in an entirely unexpected development, the Vatican has confirmed.

He became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 following the death of John Paul II.

The reasons behind the 85-year-old pontiff’s surprise resignation have yet to emerge.

At 78, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the oldest new popes in history when elected.

Resignations from the papacy are not unknown, but this is the first in the modern era, which has been marked by pontiffs dying while in office.

Pope Benedict XVI took the helm as one of the fiercest storms the Catholic Church has faced in decades – the scandal of child sex abuse by priests – was breaking.

A Vatican spokesman indicated that even the Pope’s closest aides did not know
what he was planning to do

Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month in an entirely unexpected development

Pope Benedict XVI is to resign at the end of this month in an entirely unexpected development

The Vatican says it expects the period between the Pope’s resignation and the election of his successor to be as brief as possible, but there has been no confirmation on when cardinals will meet to choose a new pontiff.

In a statement, Pope Benedict XVI said: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.

“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both 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.

“For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”

A German government spokesman said he was “moved and touched” by the surprise resignation of the German-born pontiff.

“The German government has the highest respect for the Holy Father, for what he has done, for his contributions over the course of his life to the Catholic Church.

“He has left a very personal signature as a thinker at the head of the Church, and also as a shepherd.”

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Three activists of the Ukrainian women’s rights movement Femen staged a protest at the Vatican on Sunday, shortly after the Pope’s regular Sunday address.

One of them sneaked into St. Peter’s square and took off her coat revealing a transparent blouse.

The demonstrator held a sign saying “Freedom for Women” and shouted: “Libere siamo noi” [Italian for “We are free”].

Three activists of the Ukrainian women's rights movement Femen staged a protest at the Vatican on Sunday, shortly after the Pope's regular Sunday address

Three activists of the Ukrainian women’s rights movement Femen staged a protest at the Vatican on Sunday, shortly after the Pope’s regular Sunday address

The woman was stopped as she started pulling her clothes off by police and quickly led along with her two partners to a nearby police station where the protesters are being questioned.

Femen is Ukrainian protest group based in Kiev and was founded in 2008. The organization became internationally known for organizing topless protests against sex tourism, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international issues.

 

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Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict’s former butler, found guilty of stealing papal documents, has been moved to a Vatican cell to serve the rest of his sentence.

Paolo Gabriele was given an 18-month prison sentence earlier this month.

He admitted passing documents to a journalist, but said he did it out of love for the Church and the Pope.

The Vatican secretary of state’s office has left open the possibility of a papal pardon if Paolo Gabriele repents and seeks forgiveness.

As neither Paolo Gabriele’s defence lawyer, nor the Vatican prosecutor, has entered an appeal, his sentence has now become definitive.

Paolo Gabriele will serve his prison term in a special detention room inside the Vatican police station.

The Vatican authorities were worried that if he were to be moved into an Italian prison he might be subject to pressure to reveal secrets which might cause further embarrassment to the Pope.

The Vatican has dismissed suspicions of a wider plot, saying that Paolo Gabriele acted alone in obtaining the documents and giving them to an Italian journalist who published them.

The trial of his co-defendant, Claudio Sciarpelletti, is due to start in early November.

The computer expert is accused of helping Paolo Gabriele while working as in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

Paolo Gabriele has been moved to a Vatican cell to serve the rest of his sentence

Paolo Gabriele has been moved to a Vatican cell to serve the rest of his sentence

Paolo Gabriele’s trial heard that he had used the photocopier in his shared office next to the Pope’s library to copy thousands of documents, taking advantage of his unrivalled access to the pontiff.

He later passed some of the documents to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who released a best-selling book about corruption, scandals and infighting at the Vatican, largely based on the confidential papers.

Its publication sparked the hunt for the source of the leaks inside the Vatican.

Paolo Gabriele confessed to taking the papers, but said he believed the Pope was being manipulated and hoped to reveal alleged corruption at the Vatican.

He told his trial that he did not see himself as a thief, but admitted he was guilty of “having betrayed the trust of the Holy Father, whom I love as a son would.”

 

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Pope Benedict XVI has accepted the resignation of Argentine Bishop Fernando Bargallo after the publication of pictures showing him embracing a woman on a Mexican beach.

Bishop Fernando Bargallo, 57, was photographed in the sea, hugging a woman in a bikini.

The bishop initially said she was a childhood friend, but later admitted to having had “amorous ties” with her.

Bishop Fernando Bargallo was in charge of the diocese of Merlo-Moreno, in the province of Buenos Aires.

The scandal broke last week, when an Argentine television station broadcast pictures of Monsignor Fernando Bargallo on holiday at a beach resort in Mexico in the company of a woman.

Bishop Fernando Bargallo initially said the woman was a childhood friend, but later admitted to having had "amorous ties" with her

Bishop Fernando Bargallo initially said the woman was a childhood friend, but later admitted to having had "amorous ties" with her

In one of the pictures, he is seen half-submerged in the water, embracing a woman in a bikini.

Shortly after the pictures were published, Monsignor Fernando Bargallo gave a public statement saying that the woman was a childhood friend, whom he had known all of his life.

He said the situation in which he had been photographed was “imprudent, as it could lead people to jump to the wrong conclusion”.

Fernando Bargallo asked his flock to forgive him for “the ambiguity of the pictures” and urged them to view the photos “in the context of a long friendship”.

But later that same week, Monsignor Fernando Bargallo convened the priests of his diocese and told them he had had “amorous ties” with the woman and would resign.

The Vatican said he would be replaced by Monsignor Alcides Jorge Pedro Casaretto.