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Papal legacy puts Vatican under siege

There is a cruel paradox in the career of the man who, in September, will become only the second pope in history to visit Britain. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, he set about purifying the Catholic Church and returning it to its core values. He also pledged to get his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, canonised as quickly as possible.

But as a new church scandal exploded last week, hard on the heels of the paedophilia storm, this one involving allegations of massive corruption at the heart of the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict's papal career risks being eclipsed by the dark shadow of John Paul's legacy.

Nobody doubts the Pope would like the church to be a cleaner, leaner, quieter, purer institution, purged of paedophile priests and greedy careerists. But this man, who proposes himself as a new broom and wags his finger at those who take a permissive, typically Italian view of venality, has been at the heart of the church for half a lifetime. All these people are his old colleagues. If this is Sodom, he has been a citizen in good standing for 40 years.

Take the man at the centre of the latest storm, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe. Aged 67, he was born on the outskirts of Naples and was raised speaking the gritty local dialect, incomprehensible to outsiders. Referred to by Italian newspapers as "l'impresario di Dio" -- "God's wheeler-dealer" -- today he is the much-beloved archbishop of the same city: an impressively fat, prosperous looking prelate, who likes nothing better than immersing himself in his crowds of Neapolitan fans, slapping backs and kissing babies.

Sepe, who is still very young for a cardinal, received spectacular promotions from John Paul II which climaxed when he was given the job of running the church's Jubilee celebrations in 2000. A showman after the late Pope's heart, he threw a carnival such as Rome has not seen since the days of Nero, and was rewarded for his success with the juicy job of running a church agency called Propaganda Fide, with a Roman property portfolio said to be worth €9bn.

Now prosecutors claim he sold property from that portfolio to a top politician at half its market value in return for his agency receiving special favours from the government. In classic clientelismo style: you scratch the politician's back, and he scratches yours. Except that in this case the alleged perpetrator was one of the most illustrious figures in the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict, Vatican watchers say, spotted Cardinal Sepe's frailties early on, which is why, in 2006, he unceremoniously removed him from Propaganda Fide -- a job that an incumbent would normally expect to hold indefinitely -- and packed him off home to Naples.

The cardinal denies that version of what happened as flatly as he denies the corruption charges. Last week he said of the change in his fortunes: "The Holy Father asked me with great insistence to stay in Rome, but my heart was beating for Naples." But apropos of his legal difficulties, he also speaks darkly of enemies "who wanted to strike me, both inside and outside the church".

It is hard to think of two men of God more different than Sepe and Ratzinger: the meaty, glad-handing Mediterranean man of the people, and the ascetic, book-loving Bavarian introvert. In a church regulated according to the Pope's wishes, it's also hard to imagine a man like Sepe obtaining much preferment. But the uncomfortable fact for Benedict is that the two men have one vital thing in common: both of them were chosen and promoted by John Paul II.

He may be physically slight, but this Pope is no pushover. As John Paul II's "enforcer of the faith" for nearly 30 years, he was ruthless in purging anyone and everyone with whom he disagreed -- liberal theologians, those who lobbied the cause of gays in the church, the propounders of liberation theology, and easy-going Catholics who wanted the church to get on closer terms with other faiths.

Since becoming Pope, he has kept up the hard line, favouring the return of Latin and of priests who turn their back on the congregation during Mass, the end of guitar-strumming populism, and the fashioning of a church that might have fewer members but is purer and less contaminated by the secular world. But Pope Benedict is meeting fierce resistance from within the church, in particular from some senior churchmen like Cardinal Sepe -- those most lavishly favoured by John Paul II. Skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboard.

The church has been rocked by the nightmare of priestly paedophilia: early this year, lawyers acting for US victims of paedophile priests accused Benedict of complicity in the cover-up of the crimes, and of having shown no sympathy for the victims. Since then, the Pope has been rowing back hard. He said: "Today the greatest persecution of the church does not come from outside, but from the sin inside the church itself. The church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice."

The alleged venality of Cardinal Sepe has added more pollution to the air.

Pope Benedict XVI would like the Catholic Church to be very different from the one that ballooned out of all proportion under John Paul, purer, more beautiful, more austere. But far from moulding the church in his own image, he now risks having his own heritage fatally compromised by the sins of the Holy Father.

Tasked with fostering John Paul's legacy, he risks being flattened by it.