VATICAN CITY (AP) - In the end, American-style transparency was no match for the Vatican's obsession with secrecy.
Cardinals attending closed-door discussions ahead of the conclave to elect the next pope imposed a media blackout on Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of the popular daily press briefings by United States (US) cardinals that had provided crucial insights into the deliberations.
The official reason for the blackout was that some details of the secret discussions about the problems in the church appeared in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.
But speculation mounted that the underlying aim of the blackout was to silence the Americans, who have been vocal in their calls for disclosure about allegations of corruption and dysfunction in the Holy See's governance before they enter the conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI.
As a result, the conflict appears to be a microcosm of the likely battle lines heading into the election: American and German cardinals have indicated they want a pope who will impose some order on the Vatican's inner workings, while the Vatican-based cardinals are defending their record and seeking to end the discussion.
One Italian cardinal said the Curia, or the Vatican bureaucracy, had been sorely maligned and that he could "only say good things about it".
"In the Curia, the pope has a docile tool that does exactly what he wants and tries to help him in the best of ways," Italian media quoted Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, the retired administrator of the Vatican City State as saying during a book launch on Tuesday. "Of course it can always be improved."
That picture is at odds with evidence of turf battles, Machiavellian machinations and allegations of corruption and cronyism that were exposed last year when private papal documents were leaked to an Italian journalist. The documents paint a portrait of an utterly dysfunctional, ungovernable Italian bureaucracy.
The Vatican denied it had exerted any pressure on the American cardinals to keep quiet and cancel their briefings. But the Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, made clear that the Holy See considered this week's pre-conclave meetings to be secret and part of a solemn process to choose a pope, suggesting that he didn't necessarily appreciate the Americans' candour.
"The College (of Cardinals) as a whole has decided to maintain a line of an increasing degree of reserve," he said.
The debate played out as the Vatican awaited the arrival of the last voting-age cardinal: Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, who was expected in Rome on Thursday. With his arrival, the College of Cardinals was expected to be able to set a date for the start of the conclave, where 115 men will select the next pontiff.
The spokeswoman for the US cardinals, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said Wednesday's briefing and all cardinal interviews were cancelled after other cardinals expressed concern about the content of articles in Italian daily La Stampa, which over the past several days reported details of comments individual cardinals made in the closed-door meetings.
La Stampa reported on Wednesday, for example, that the head of the Vatican's legal office had told the cardinals of the need for improved coordination among the various Vatican offices and better communication between the Holy See and local dioceses.
None of those details came from the American briefing, where the US cardinals took pains to stress the secrecy of the actual proceedings.
"I don't think anyone was angry at the Americans. They were angry at La Stampa," Sister Walsh told The Associated Press.
"In true old-style Catholic school teacher fashion, someone talks and everybody stays after school," Sister Walsh said. She added that the Americans had been assured that the Vatican was pleased with their briefings.
Perhaps. But Rev Lombardi's palatable irritation suggested otherwise.
Italian media reported that Vatican-based cardinals wanted the election to take place quickly and speculated that Italian cardinals in particular were displeased with the Americans for making clear they were requesting more information about the Vatican's internal governance problems. The implication was the Rome-based cardinals didn't want the Vatican's dirty laundry aired out.
Cardinals Daniel DiNardo of Texas and Sean O'Malley of Boston said in Tuesday's briefing that they favoured taking a longer time for pre-conclave discussions to gather more information.
"We need to give it the time that's necessary," Cardinal O'Malley told the packed press conference at the North American College, the US seminary up the hill from the Vatican. "I believe the feeling of the cardinals is that we want to have enough time in the general congregations so that when we go to the conclave itself it's a time of decision."
Drawing laughs, Cardinal O'Malley added: "And it is hard to get a bad meal in Rome."
German Cardinal Walter Kasper also called for more time. "Among the cardinals, we barely know one another," he told La Repubblica newspaper. "There's no hurry."
Italian newspapers and international media, including The Associated Press, have reported on the Americans' unique briefings and how they contrasted with the near-silence from other cardinals and Rev Lombardi's comparatively sedate Vatican briefings.
During Tuesday's briefing, Cardinals DiNardo and O'Malley held a lively and informative 30-minute chat with some 100 reporters and two dozen television crews from around the globe. They revealed no details of their closed-door discussions. But they nevertheless provided journalists with insight about the process from two people actually involved.
"We're trying to help people have a greater understanding of what the process is and the procedures and background information," Cardinal O'Malley told reporters. "Right now that's about all we can share with you but we're happy to try to do it."
Although the Americans were the only cardinals who were holding daily briefings, other individual cardinals have given occasional interviews to individual media.
And in an indication that the blackout wasn't total, US Cardinal Timothy Dolan went ahead with his live radio show broadcast on Wednesday.