VATICAN CITY -- Deep inside a safe in the papal apartment lies a top-secret report -- for his holiness' eyes only -- that has become the most-talked-about document in Rome.
Written by three elderly cardinals, the dossier delves into the most damaging security breach inside the Vatican in living memory: the recent leak of private papers belonging to Pope Benedict XVI. The pontiff commissioned the senior prelates to find out how such a major lapse could have occurred and why.
Where the fingers point -- already a matter of fevered conjecture in the Italian press -- could become a factor in the selection of the next pope after Benedict's retirement Thursday. Even though the 115 cardinals who will choose a new pontiff are not being allowed to read the confidential file, what they believe to be in it could color their decision.
Speculation over the dossier's potentially explosive contents is just part of the politicking that is likely to go into the heavily veiled process of picking a new leader for the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.
That process in effect started earlier than usual this time because of Benedict's surprise announcement of his intention to step down from office rather than let death remove him from it. The advance notice of a vacancy on the throne of St. Peter means that papal hopefuls, their supporters and detractors have already begun sizing one another up, plotting strategy and assessing chances.
As yet, no whisper campaigns or well-timed leaks to the news media have sprung up as the cardinals converge on Rome to be on hand for Benedict's farewell. But if past papal transitions are any guide, that could just be a matter of time.
"I'm sure we'll see it," said John Allen, a veteran Vatican watcher for the National Catholic Reporter.
As spiritual and prayerful as the process is supposed to be, cardinals have been known to resort to more worldly methods of advancing their favored candidates or issues.
"They are talking with one another -- not in public view, obviously," Allen said, and some also have made brief statements to the news media. "Other cardinals are reading those interviews. That's also a way to put down markers," he said.
The most crucial forum for the cardinals to do some subtle self-promotion and to evaluate one another is the group meetings they will hold to discuss issues facing the church as they prepare for the conclave to elect the new pope. The Vatican announced Tuesday that those meetings, called general congregations, would begin Monday.