NBC Touts 'Controversial Theories' About Pope's Resignation That Claim Scandal 'As Big As Watergate'

On Friday's NBC Today, fill-in co-host Lester Holt hyped unfounded speculation surrounding the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI: "More than a week after his resignation became official, there are still a lot of controversial theories about why Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is looking into them at the Vatican." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Previewing a report for Rock Center, Engel proclaimed: "What we still don't know, not definitively anyway, is why Pope Benedict decided to retire....[Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi] exposed some of the Vatican's most guarded secrets. A scoop seen in Italy as big as Watergate. Italians call it 'Vatileaks.'"

A clip was shown of Engel melodramatically posing this question to Nuzzi: "Are you the man who brought down the pope?" Nuzzi replied: "No. How can you think a journalist can bring down a pope?" Engel declared: "But many believe that's exactly what happened."

Engel added to the Watergate comparison by describing how Nuzzi got the story: "The Pope's butler passed about 100 pages of documents he'd photocopied and smuggled out of the Pope's own apartment....It was a cloak and dagger operation, with meetings between Nuzzi and the butler in public squares, conversations only by old-fashioned public telephones."

Engel parroted general accusations against the Church without providing any specifics: "The butler's leaked documents revealed problems in the Vatican Bank, and allegations of a twisted web involving money, power and sex." He then promoted unsubstantiated speculation surrounding the Pope's decision to step down: "...several Vatican experts have a theory, that the Pope resigned not only for health reasons, but also because he didn't have the strength to deal with the scandals inside the Vatican."

Talking to one such expert, Philip Willan, Engel suggested: "So the only way for him [the Pope] to bring down those around him was to fall on his own sword?" Willan replied: "I think that's right. This was not just his resignation. It was a way of firing everybody."

Since when is it news to just forward unproven "theories" about what may or may not have motivated a leader's decision?


Here is a full transcript of the March 8 report:

7:37AM ET

LESTER HOLT: More than a week after his resignation became official, there are still a lot of controversial theories about why Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is looking into them at the Vatican. Richard, good morning.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Rock Center With Brian Williams; Vatileaks: Secrets From the Pope's Butler]

RICHARD ENGEL: Good morning, Lester. Just a first bit of news. Today, a Vatican spokesperson said we should know the date of the start of the Conclave some time this afternoon, Rome time. That's the process by which the cardinals will elect a new pope.

But what we still don't know, not definitively anyway, is why Pope Benedict decided to retire. And a main theory is that it wasn't just because of his age and health, but that he became aware of a number of controversies among the Vatican's top leadership, first exposed by an Italian investigative journalist. Are you the man who brought down the pope?

GIANLUIGI NUZZI: No. How can you think a journalist can bring down a pope?

ENGEL: But many believe that's exactly what happened. This journalist exposed some of the Vatican's most guarded secrets. A scoop seen in Italy as big as Watergate. Italians call it "Vatileaks." The Pope's butler passed about 100 pages of documents he'd photocopied and smuggled out of the Pope's own apartment to Gianluigi Nuzzi, now an NBC consultant.

It was a cloak and dagger operation, with meetings between Nuzzi and the butler in public squares, conversations only by old-fashioned public telephones. The butler's leaked documents revealed problems in the Vatican Bank, and allegations of a twisted web involving money, power and sex. Nuzzi says the butler thought he was trying to help the Pope.

PHILIP WILLAN [VATICAN EXPERT]: The butler described himself as an infiltrator for the Holy Spirit in the Vatican. In a sense, I think he thought he was making history. And I think, given the way things turned out, he really did.

ENGEL: The Vatican Bank has denied allegations of corruption, but several Vatican experts have a theory, that the Pope resigned not only for health reasons, but also because he didn't have the strength to deal with the scandals inside the Vatican. Experts told us his resignation was an act of sacrifice, to save the Catholic Church.

WILLAN: My view is that it was a very courageous act, actually. And perhaps at the end of the day it will be seen as the defining moment of his papacy and his real legacy.

ENGEL: So the only way for him to bring down those around him was to fall on his own sword?

WILLAN: I think that's right. This was not just his resignation. It was a way of firing everybody.

ENGEL: The Pope sealed the 300-page report on the Vatileaks scandal, saying it can only be read by his successor. Its contents may be the one Vatican secret that will never be revealed. Some cardinals here in Rome have started to ask about the leaks and scandals and say they need to know about them in order to make an informed choice of the next pope. Lester.

HOLT: Richard Engel at the Vatican. Richard, thanks. You'll have more, we should note, tonight on Rock Center with Brian Williams at 10/9 Central Time right here on NBC.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC