It paints a picture of sexual misdoings, rampant power struggles and cronyism among the clergy. Attempts to have the book taken off the shelves and prevent translation into other languages have backfired and sales have rocketed.
The book was a collective effort under the nom de plume i Millenari - the Millennarians. The pseudonym is an anagram of the name of the principal author, a bespectacled 72-year-old, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli, who retired last year after thirty years as an official in the Congregation of the Eastern Churches.
The intentions of the book are made clear in a statement on the front cover: "It's time the Church asked forgiveness to Christ for the many infidelities and betrayals of its ministers, specially by those in authority at the top of the Vatican hierarchy." Among the juicier snippets in the book is an item about a bishop who was surprised at night by the Rome police as he was semi-naked in a car with another man. Another bishop apparently stole diocesan funds to pay for his illegitimate child while a third was allegedly caught at the Swiss border with a suitcase stuffed full of bank notes.
Msr Marinelli and his co-writers denounce what they call the Vatican's rampant dog-eat-dog careerism, which they say would shame Wall Street brokers.
They accuse senior clerics of sending the current Pope off globetrotting and usurping his powers in his absence. The book also alleges that Masons have infiltrated the higher ranks of the clergy and that nepotism is as rife today as it was in centuries past.
Although no one is named, many characters are said to be easily identifiable. Kaos Edizioni, the small Milan publishing house that backed the book, says it has ordered several reprints to meet demand and that most of the sales have been to religious book shops.
A veteran Vatican watcher described the book as a "mixture of incidents that probably were true and others that certainly were not".
Msr Marinelli was vague yesterday about some of the more explicit sexual allegations and said he felt he had been made a scapegoat by the Church authorities.
He refused to attend yesterday's hearing, saying he had not been informed of what canon law he had violated and that he had the right to discuss the matters first with his superiors. The hearing was closed to the public.
The case against Monsignor Marinelli was brought by a man who claims the book defamed his uncle, a deceased bishop.
After being criticised for attempting to censor the work, the Vatican issued a statement, saying the purpose of the trial was to "protect those who had been defamed, not to prevent freedom of expression".
If he is found guilty, Monsignor Marinelli could be deprived of his priestly functions and prevented from saying mass.Reuse content