The Vatican on Saturday blasted a spate of reports in the Italian media as salacious and thinly sourced attempts to influence cardinals tasked with selecting Benedict XVI’s successor.

“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,” read an exceptional statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State, the equivalent of the prime minister’s office.

“It is deplorable that as we draw closer to the time of the beginning of the Conclave and the Cardinal electors will be held in conscience and before God, to freely indicate their choice, that there be a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories, that cause serious damage to persons and institutions,” the statement said.

The stories in question have focused on individual cardinals linked to sex-abuse scandals, but the major headache comes from claims that Benedict’s resignation is linked to a special dossier prepared by a trio of cardinals appointed by the pope last year to investigate the papal letter-leaking scandal known as VatiLeaks.

The left-leaning daily la Repubblica asserted that the cardinals’ report revealed how laymen had blackmailed Vatican officials to whom they had links of a “worldly nature.” The relationship between the Vatican and Italian media is porous, leading some observers to suggest that the pre-conclave headlines are less examples of media interference than internal church power politics spilling out to sway the election’s result.