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Pope rounds on rival cardinals and their 'sins against unity'

Ash Wednesday speech hints Vatican power struggles were real reason  for shock resignation

Pope Benedict used last night's Ash Wednesday mass to deliver a withering and extraordinary blast at the warring factions in the Vatican's upper-echelons, whose power struggles many believe influenced the Pontiff's historic decision to stand down.

Earlier on Wednesday, during the general audience, the Pontiff had alluded to the need for church figures to avoid the temptations of power and privilege.

But yesterday evening his warning was clearer. “We must reflect on how the face of the Church is marred by sins against unity and division of the ecclesiastical body. We must overcome individualism and rivalry,” he told great and the good of the curia assembled in St Peter’s Basilica. “The true disciple does not serve himself or the public, but the Lord.

“Many are ready to get on their high horse over scandals and injustices – obviously committed by others – but few seem able to act according to the real wishes of their own hearts and consciences.”

Pundit Gerard O’Connell of the Vatican Insider said: “This was a very, very, clear and strongly worded speech. It was an appeal for an end to the personal rivalries and of people competing to put themselves in high profile positions. I think Benedict is passing messages to the cardinals and to those who will succeed him.”

Benedict cited advancing age and declining health in his resignation announcement on Monday. Reports suggest the head injury he sustained after falling during a trip to Mexico last year was another factor behind his shock decision to stand down.

Many have speculated that a raft of scandals within the Vatican lies, at least in part, behind his decision to quit, however.

Those scandals culminated last year with the conviction of Paolo Gabriele, the pope's ex-butler, who was found guilty of leaking confidential papal memos suggesting corruption and intrigue within the Holy See to the Italian press.

But many Vatican watchers believe a confidential report into Vatileaks commissioned by Benedict may have revealed evidence of power struggles and a more far-reaching conspiracy to discredit his papacy and his deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

La Repubblica newspaper suggested that Benedict’s criticism yesterday may have been aimed at three of the Vatican’s most powerful figures: the secretary of state Cardinal Bertone, his predecessor, Angelo Sodano, the current dean of the College of Cardinals, and the head of the Bishops Conference, Angelo Bagnasco.

It claimed that Cardinal Bertone was already at loggerheads with his two rivals as senior figures jockeyed for power  and influence in the run up to the Conclave in mid-March, which will elected Benedict’s successor.

Meanwhile, as one of last significant appointments under Benedict’s reign, a new head of the Vatican Bank, the IOR, in expected within the next few days. Pundits believe a foreigner is likely to be brought in to clean up bank’s reputation.

The IOR has been without a president since May 2012 when its Italian head Ettore Gotti Tedeschi resigned, following a no-confidence vote by the board of directors of the bank. This provoked a series of accusation and counter claims between Mr Tedeschi and the Holy See regarding the management of the scandal-hit financial institution.