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The Vatican has launched a rare criminal investigation. Pope Benedict has appointed a commission to uncover who's behind embarrassing leaks of highly sensitive documents. Those papers allege corruption and financial mismanagement in the Vatican City state.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

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ARCHBISHOP CARLO MARIA VIGANO: (Foreign language spoken)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It was a show in late January on an independent TV network that first revealed letters addressed last year to Pope Benedict XVI from the then-deputy governor of the Vatican City state.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano complained of corruption within the church, and protested orders to remove him from his post and send him as ambassador to Washington. Under his watch, the Holy See balance sheet went from $10 million in the red, to almost $45 million in profits in just 12 months.

By being kicked upstairs, Vigano wrote, his efforts to clean up the Vatican would be stopped - and would also tarnish the pontiff's image by bringing into question his resolve to establish transparency inside the Vatican.

The TV program later broadcast an interview with a man - voice and face disguised - it said was a Vatican insider who had leaked some of the documents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I was motivated by anger because there is a complicity of silence in the Vatican to prevent the truth from coming out.

POGGIOLI: A second round of leaked documents focused on financial mismanagement.The Vatican, whose bank 30 years ago was enmeshed in scandals involving allegations of money laundering and Mafia connections, wants admission to the list of countries that share financial information. That would help rid the Holy See of its reputation for shady transactions, and as a tax haven.

The State Department has put the Vatican on a list of countries of concern for money laundering or other financial crimes. Robert Mickens, correspondent for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, says it's suspected that the Vatican Bank is run like an offshore bank.

ROBERT MICKENS: You know, they're like a Swiss bank account, hiding funds. It's suspicion, but many of the regulators think it's well-founded suspicion.

POGGIOLI: Italian authorities are investigating the origin of $33 million in Vatican funds deposited in Italian banks. And Italian media has reported that JP Morgan Chase is closing the Vatican Bank's account with its Milan branch because it felt the Holy See had failed to provide sufficient data on money transfers.

Last year, under orders from the pope, the Vatican passed internal legislation to bring it in line with international money-laundering regulations. But one of the leaked documents claims the Vatican Bank is sidestepping full compliance with international regulations concerning past transactions.

The Vatican has never denied the authenticity of the various leaked documents. But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi reacted angrily on Vatican Radio.

THE REV. FEDERICO LOMBARDI: (Through translator) The U.S. government had WikiLeaks. The Vatican now has its leaks. They create confusion and bewilderment, showing the Vatican and the Catholic Church in a bad light. Reporters should use reason, something not everyone in the media tends to do.

MARCO POLITI: These VatiLeaks are the sign of a deep crisis within the government of the pope.

POGGIOLI: Marco Politi is a veteran Vatican analyst. He says the leaks do not reflect a dispute between liberals and conservatives within the church, but rather a deep malaise over Benedict's governance.

POLITI: He has not the sense of the government, of the leadership. He has no geopolitical vision. There has been so many crises in his papacy like it never happened in the last hundred years of the other popes.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican has opened three, distinct investigations into VatiLeaks, including a criminal probe. But it's not clear what punishment those responsible would face. And a public trial could pose a severe challenge for a 2,000-year-old institution accustomed to secrecy.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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