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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Amid all the rivalries and gossip exposed by a growing Vatican crisis, Pope Benedict's deputy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has emerged as the chief target of an unprecedented campaign of leaks.
The publication of embarrassing details about men he has appointed or moved out and projects he has promoted or opposed suggests a concerted effort to force him out of his post as secretary of state, or Vatican prime minister.
Benedict ruffled feathers in 2006 by choosing the theologian and canon law expert to head the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia, which is normally run by an experienced papal diplomat.
A series of mishaps embarrassing the pope and Bertone's increasingly authoritarian management style finally prompted his critics to launch the campaign to discredit him, according to Vatican insiders.
"It's all aimed at Bertone," said a monsignor in the Curia who sides with his gregarious boss. "It's very clear that they want to get ride of Bertone."
Exactly who is behind the murky leaks campaign is still a matter of speculation; but Vatican watchers suspect the miffed "diplomatic wing", including Bertone's still influential predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is involved.
Bertone has also frustrated some Curia officials by exerting more control over their access to the pope and slighted some Italian prelates by getting involved with local politicians, a task normally reserved for national bishops conferences.
Some commentators see the crisis as the start of jockeying for power after Benedict dies. "The majority in the next conclave is really what is at stake," the daily La Stampa wrote.
With criticism of Bertone increasing, Benedict made a rare declaration of support for his deputy and other close aides on Wednesday.
"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," he said at his weekly public audience.
Benedict opted for a trusted colleague in 2006 when he named Bertone, his former deputy at the Vatican's powerful doctrinal office, to the post overseeing the Curia bureaucracy in Rome and the Vatican's embassies abroad.
The cardinal was supposed to run the Vatican shop while Benedict, now 85, devoted his time more to doctrinal issues and writing a three-book theological study of Jesus Christ.
Bertone hinted early on that internal management was not his main interest, saying soon after his appointment that he wanted "to be secretary of the Church more than of the state."
Detractors say his frequent travel abroad, involvement in Italian Church politics, and even his enthusiasm for football, have hurt the daily working of the Curia, which has failed on several occasions to properly advice and support Benedict.
"Bertone does most of his work not inside the walls of the Vatican, but on the outside," Vatican watcher Sandro Magister, a frequent critic, has written.
"It's easier to get him to bless a new football field at a high school on the outskirts of Rome than to meet with the American ambassador to the Vatican," said the Curia monsignor, who asked not to be named.
Among the mishaps on Bertone's watch, the new archbishop of Warsaw had to quit in 2007 one hour before his installation because he had spied for the communist-era police. This was known in Poland but the pope was long kept in the dark.
In 2009, Catholics, Jews and German politicians rounded on Benedict after he rehabilitated four rebel bishops, including one who was a notorious Holocaust denier. The shocked pope had to admit Curia officials had not done a quick search on him on the Internet, where his extreme-right views were on full display.
According to leakers quoted anonymously in the Italian media, the trigger for the campaign was the last consistory in February where an unusually high number of Italians and Curia officials were made cardinals who will vote for the next pope.
Bertone is not the frontrunner to succeed Benedict - Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola is often mentioned as the best-placed - but the way he has strongly promoted his allies has led to suspicions he wants to play a role when the voting takes place.
"The most delicate power balances in the Vatican are obviously at stake," La Stampa wrote.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Barry Moody and Ralph Boulton