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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Saturday accused the Italian media of spreading "false and damaging" reports in what it condemned as a deplorable attempt to influence cardinals who will meet in a secret conclave next month to elect a new pope.

Since Pope Benedict announced his resignation on February 11, Italian newspapers have been full of rumors about conspiracies, secret reports and lobbies in the Vatican that they say pushed the pope to abdicate.

"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," a Vatican statement said.

The Italian reports have painted an unflattering picture of the Vatican's central administration, known as the Curia, depicting it as being full of prelates more concerned with their careers than serving the Church or the pope.

Some Church officials, speaking privately, have said foreign cardinals coming to Rome to choose the next pope have been alarmed over reports of corruption and might be inclined to elect someone not connected with the Curia, which is predominantly Italian.

The Vatican statement said the Italian media reports were an attempt to influence the outcome of the conclave through negative public opinion much like states and kings tried to influence papal elections centuries ago.

The pope has announced that he will step down on February 28, becoming the first pontiff to abdicate in some six centuries.

The 85-year-old Benedict said his failing health no longer enabled him to run the 1.2-billion-member Roman Catholic Church as he would like.

DISCREDITING THE CHURCH

In a separate statement, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the reports were trying to "discredit the Church and its government" ahead of the conclave.

Italy's Repubblica newspaper ran a series of unsourced stories this week about the alleged contents of a secret report prepared for the pope by a commission of three cardinals who investigated the so-called Vatileaks scandal last year.

Paolo Gabriele, the pope's butler, was convicted of stealing personal papal documents and leaking them to the media. He was jailed and later pardoned by the pope.

The documents alleged corruption in the Vatican and infighting over the running of its bank, which has been at the heart of a series of scandals in past decades.

On Friday the Vatican denied Italian media reports that Benedict's decision to send a senior official to a new post in Latin America was linked to the secret report about leaked papal papers.

The Vatican said the transfer to Colombia of Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, an Italian who holds a post roughly equivalent to deputy foreign minister, was a promotion and had been decided weeks ago. Balestrero will be promoted to archbishop and made ambassador in Bogota.

Those reports said Balestrero was being sent away from the Vatican because he figured in the secret report.

On Saturday, as part of his last activities before his resignation in five days, Benedict ended a week-long Lenten spiritual retreat in the Vatican and held a farewell meeting with Italy's president.

On Sunday he will hold his last Sunday blessing. He will hold his last general audience on Wednesday and meet with cardinals on Thursday morning before he resigns on Thursday.

He will first go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo south of Rome and then move to a convent inside the Vatican in April after the building is renovated.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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