Pope Benedict XVI has surrounded himself with a small group of men he feels he can trust, but he acts very much on his own. That isolation and shunning of advice have frequently created problems and are increasingly under scrutiny as the clerical sex scandal inches closer to him.
Early on in his 5-year-old papacy, Benedict provoked a furious reaction from Muslims when he linked the Prophet Muhammad to violence in a speech Vatican officials said he wrote himself.
Then he enraged Jews for the "unforeseen mishap" of being unaware that a bishop whose excommunication he lifted was a Holocaust-denier. The pope similarly is unlikely to have known that his personal preacher, during a solemn Good Friday sermon, would compare the uproar over the church's sex abuse scandal to persecution of Jews.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi — who has frequently had to put out these fires — said Saturday that such a comparison was not the line of the Vatican, the Catholic Church or even the intent of the preacher himself, Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa.
That the Vatican has had a communications problem during Benedict's papacy is fairly well-established. Amid a swirling scandal at the pope's feet, Lombardi recently said he hadn't spoken to the pontiff about his letter to Irish Catholics, and that his information on Benedict's views on it was second hand.
While part of the problem is Benedict's reserved personality, perhaps more to blame is a culture of secrecy at the Vatican, rooted in church history for centuries, and its tendency to shun being held accountable to the secular world.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has testified in U.S. court cases about Vatican secrecy and sex abuse, has written about the medieval-era canonical concept of the "privilege of the forum" — whereby clerics accused of crimes were tried by church courts, not civil courts.
"Although this privilege is anachronistic in contemporary society, the attitude or mentality, which holds clerics accountable only to the institutional church authorities is still active," he wrote in a recent article.
"There is a cult of secrecy in Catholic Church. It's a paranoid culture," Doyle, who worked as a canon lawyer in the Vatican's U.S. nunciature in the 1980s, said in an interview Saturday.
Against that backdrop sits Benedict's inner circle.
It is formed principally by the Vatican's No. 2 official, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict's trusted deputy during his long years as a Vatican official; and Benedict's private secretary, fellow German Monsignor Georg Ganswein. The pope also is known to still consult his former personal secretary, Monsignor Josef Clemens, now the No. 2 at the Vatican office for the laity.
Benedict's closest friend is his older brother, Georg, a retired priest who often visits from Germany but who himself has been drawn into the scandal stemming from his years leading a pre-eminent German choir.
"The pope listens to his collaborators, but then he's very autonomous in his decisions — above all on questions of doctrinal and theological nature," noted Ignazio Ingrao, the Vatican columnist for Italy's Panorama newsweekly.
The top adviser is Bertone, a 75-year-old soccer aficionado who used to give play-by-play commentary on local television when he was archbishop of Genoa.
The pope trusts him deeply, and shows a real affection for him. Two days after Benedict broke his wrist last summer in the Italian Alps, the pontiff kept an appointment to visit Bertone's hometown of Romano Canavese, where he had lunch at the Bertone family homestead.
Just last month, he referred to Bertone as "my dearest secretary of state" when the city of Romano Canavese conferred an honorary citizenship on him.
But Bertone has also been accused of not shielding the pope enough from pitfalls.
"Tarcisio Bertone, the cardinal who was supposed to help the pope," Vatican watcher Sandro Magister wrote in 2007 after a particularly bad gaffe involving the botched appointment of a Polish prelate suspected of being a communist collaborator.
Ganswein, a former ski instructor often satirized because of his good looks, is extremely solicitous and protective of the 82-year-old pope.
But Vatican insiders say he lacks the political savvy of his predecessor as papal secretary, the Polish Stanislaw Dziwisz, now cardinal-archbishop of Krakow, Poland. Ganswein also has a more formal relationship with the pontiff than Dziwisz did with John Paul.
Ganswein once described his job to friends as "living in a gilded cage."
"John Paul met a huge variety of people from all walks at his breakfasts and lunches," said Marco Politi, a biographer of the late pope. The future pope Benedict would stay for dinner after their regular Friday afternoon meetings.
As pope, Benedict is known to eat alone.
"In reality Benedict doesn't have an inner circle. He has collaborators, not advisers," said Politi.
His 2006 speech to an audience of professors at a university in Germany where he once taught is a case in point.
A theologian known for his intellect, Benedict strayed into new territory when he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith." He later expressed regret that his comments offended Muslims.
Vatican insiders said at the that time that even those who considered the speech could be taken as inflammatory would not cross the line and press Benedict to change it.
Benedict was out of the loop on another major incident involving his rehabilitation of British Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which broke away from Rome because it opposed the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Williamson has said no Jews were gassed during the Holocaust.
Amid the uproar his rehabilitation created, the pope took the remarkable step of admitting to mistakes that Williamson's views could have been known by an Internet search — had his aides done one or told him about it.
"I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news," he wrote at the time.
The case of Cantalamessa is yet another chapter for a pope who has prided his outreach to Jews yet routinely ends up enraging the Jewish community with incidents such as the Williamson affair.
In his Good Friday sermon, Cantalamessa likened the tide of allegations that the pontiff has covered up sex abuse cases to the "more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism." Both Jewish and victims' groups responded that it was inappropriate to compare the discomfort being experienced by the church leadership in the sex abuse scandal to the violence that culminated in the Holocaust.
On Saturday, the affable and cultured Lombardi was at it again, trying to stem the damage. Cantalamessa is by no means a papal adviser, and is known to have provocative views that he often expresses when he interprets the Gospel on Italian television each Saturday.
"A comparison between the criticisms to the Catholic Church for the scandals of pedophilia and anti-Semitism is absolutely not the line of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church, and was also not the intention of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who had the intention to bring only a witness of solidarity to the Church by a Jew from his personal experience of suffering," Lombardi told Associated Press Television News.
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