In an effort to hype controversy days before Pope Benedict XVI steps down as the leader of the Catholic Church, on Monday's NBC Today, correspondent Anne Thompson proclaimed: "Even in his final days as pope, scandal continues to dog Benedict's papacy and the Church." The chyron on screen throughout the segment declared: "Vatican Intrigue." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
Beyond reporting on an actual controversy surrounding the resignation of Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Thompson decided to also promote completely unfounded claims from the Italian press that "headline rumors of blackmail and conspiracy that the Vatican vehemently denies." NBC went through the effort of displaying and translating one such salacious headline on screen: "Sex and ambition, the blackmailing behind the resignation of Benedict XVI."
On February 12, the day following the Pope's announcement that he would abdicate the Papacy, Today seized on unsubstantiated rumors about the decision.
On Monday, citing criticism of American Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Cardinal O'Brien's resignation, Thompson asserted that "scandal and intrigue engulf some of the men who will choose the next pope." She later noted that such "ugly headlines" may "shape the deliberations" in electing a new Pontiff.
On ABC's Good Morning America, correspondent David Wright used the same language, describing O'Brien stepping down as "The latest and strongest example of how the papal election campaign is getting ugly."
Here is a full transcript of Thompson's February 25 report:
7:00AM ET TEASE:
MATT LAUER: Fast track. Pope Benedict reveals moments ago he's clearing the way to speed up the selection of his successor. This as a top-ranking cardinal submits his resignation this morning under a cloud of controversy.
7:07AM ET SEGMENT:
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: We're following at the moment, some breaking news coming out of the Vatican this morning, including a decision from Pope Benedict to change some rules used to select his replacement. Let's get to NBC's Anne Thompson, she's at the Vatican this morning. Ann, good morning to you.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Vatican Intrigue; Pope Clears Way for Early Conclave]
ANNE THOMPSON: Good morning, Savannah. There's lots of breaking news here. First of all, the Pope has given the cardinals permission to move up the start date of the Conclave, which will choose his successor. Secondly, a cardinal who's been in the headlines for the past 24 hours for all the wrong reasons, he decides to resign and says he's not coming to the Conclave. All of this is happening while the faithful celebrate the end of Benedict's papacy, while scandal and intrigue engulf some of the men who will choose the next pope.
Even in his final days as pope, scandal continues to dog Benedict's papacy and the Church. Italian newspapers headline rumors of blackmail and conspiracy that the Vatican vehemently denies.
[ON-SCREEN GRAPHIC: la Republica; Sex and ambition, the blackmailing behind the resignation of Benedict XVI]
American Cardinal Roger Mahoney has so far ignored calls to stay home from the conclave that chooses the next pope because of his role protecting abusive priests. And Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who commented on Mahoney's situation last week.
KEITH O'BRIEN: If someone has erred in some way or another, it doesn't stop their judgment in other matters.
THOMPSON: Today Cardinal O'Brien resigned, after being accused by three priests and a former priest of inappropriate behavior going back to the 1980s. Ugly headlines that one Vatican watcher says will shape the deliberations of the Conclave.
GEORGE WEIGEL: Some of this is politics, but other parts of it are the long-delayed reckoning with problems that require facing and correcting in the Church.
THOMPSON: The scandals have left many of the faithful weary.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm a true believer and I hope that Catholicism gets a better name these days.
THOMPSON: Despite the controversy, St. Peter's Square still felt like a well-behaved mosh pit during Pope Benedict's final Sunday blessing. 100,000 people came to say thank you to the 85-year-old Pontiff. Speaking from his window for the last time, the Pope said he is not abandoning the Church, but following God's call to more prayer and meditation.
Now also this morning, the Pope met with the three cardinals who prepared the secret dossier that's been talked so much about here, regarding the Vati-leaks incident. And the Pope said that only he has read that report and he will share it with the next pope. Savannah.
GUTHRIE: Alright, Anne Thompson at the Vatican for us this morning. And a reminder, I will be live from the Vatican on Wednesday and Thursday for the Pope's final public audience and his last day as leader of the Church.