VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Wednesday angrily denounced what he called false media coverage of a leaks scandal shaking the Vatican and expressed full trust in close aides under fire over the worst crisis in his papacy.
In unusually blunt remarks at the end of a general audience in St Peter's Square where he repeatedly referred to personal suffering, the 85-year-old pontiff said recent events had caused sadness in his heart.
"Suggestions have multiplied, amplified by some media which are totally gratuitous and which have gone well beyond the facts, offering an image of the Holy See which does not correspond to reality," Benedict said of a scandal that has seen his butler arrested for stealing secret documents.
Referring to senior Vatican aides, who Italian media accuse of waging a war of leaks as part of an internal power struggle, Benedict added:
"I would like to renew my trust and my encouragement to my closest collaborators and all those who every day, with faith, a spirit of sacrifice and in silence help me to perform my ministry."
The pope's first public reference to the scandal underlined the pain he is suffering over a string of leaks and allegations of widespread Vatican corruption.
That pain was also reflected in his main address to thousands of pilgrims gathered in bright sunshine in front of St Peter's basilica, where he spoke at length about the trials, tribulations and suffering caused even by those closest to you.
"Our life and our Christian path are often marked by difficulties, incomprehension and sufferings," he said.
The pontiff told pilgrims that all people must seek consolation in their faith and persevere in the face of "conflicts in human relations, often from within one's own family."
The Vatican has denounced the leaking of documents from the pontiff's study as a brutal personal attack. A powerful group of cardinals are hunting for others inside the Holy See believed involved in the scandal.
The arrest of butler Paolo Gabriele, 46, was the climax of a tough past week for the 85-year-old pontiff, which also included the abrupt dismissal of the head of the Vatican bank and publication of a book filled with leaks that alleged conspiracies among feuding cardinals, the "princes of the church".
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
In a long passage of his address devoted to St Paul's epistle to the Corinthians, Benedict repeatedly referred to tribulations and difficulties, saying "Christ...makes us capable of consoling ourselves from every kind of affliction."
On Tuesday, the third most senior figure in the Roman Catholic Church said in an interview in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that the publication of leaked documents in a recent book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi was a crime.
It was the first time the Vatican's official paper had reported on the arrest of the pope's butler a week ago and reflected the anger in the Holy See over what is seen as a betrayal of Benedict.
The newspaper also said the butler had been in possession of "a large number" of the pope's private documents, the first time the Holy See has come close to publicly quantifying how much confidential material Gabriele had in his apartment.
Gabriele, who was one of the people closest to the pope, is still being held in a "safe room" in the Vatican's police station. He will face Vatican magistrates again later this week or next when formal hearings start.
The Vatican says a powerful cardinals commission investigating the scandal, "can decide to hear anyone they think might have information in this case".
Several people have already been "interrogated", spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
Lombardi denied any cardinals were suspects in a scandal that has rocked the very top of the Church since Gabriele's arrest a week ago and caused a frenzy in Italian media.
While denying reports that the butler was merely a pawn in a larger power struggle among clerics in the Holy See, the Vatican has acknowledged that the affair will test the faith of Catholics in their Church.
Documents leaked to journalists over several months allege corruption in the Church's vast financial dealings with Italian business including infrastructure contracts awarded at inflated prices.
In one example, the Vatican was said to have paid 550,000 euros for a traditional nativity scene in St Peter's Square, thought to be at least double its real value.
Italian newspapers, quoting other whistleblowers in the Vatican, said the arrested butler was a scapegoat doing the bidding of more powerful figures and was punished because the Church did not dare implicate cardinals behind the leaks.
The leaks scandal has touched the Secretariat of State led by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope's powerful right-hand man, with Italian media saying it involves a struggle between his allies and enemies, reminiscent of Renaissance conspiracies inside the Vatican or a Dan Brown novel.
Gabriele's lawyers say their client will cooperate fully with investigators, raising the possibility that he could name other informants.
Critics of the pope say a lack of strong leadership has opened the door to infighting among his powerful aides - and potentially to the corruption alleged in the leaked documents.
The Vatican's announcement of the arrest of the butler came a day after the president of the Vatican bank, Italian Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, stepped down following a no confidence vote by its board of external financial experts, who come from Germany, Spain, the United States and Italy.
Gotti Tedeschi's abrupt departure was also seen as a blow to Bertone, who as secretary of state was instrumental in bringing him in from Spain's Banco Santander to run the Vatican bank in 2009.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)