The Vatican has lashed at the media for what it said has been a run of defamatory and false reports before the conclave to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor, saying they were an attempt to influence the election.

Italian newspapers have been rife with unsourced reports in recent days about the contents of a secret dossier prepared for the Pope.

The secret dossier was prepared by three Cardinals who investigated the origins of the 2012 scandal over leaked Vatican documents.

Reports suggest that the revelations in the dossier, given to Pope Benedict in December, were a factor in his decision to resign.

The Pope himself has said merely that he does not have the "strength of mind and body" to carry on and would resign 28 February.

The Vatican secretariat of state said the Catholic Church has for centuries insisted on the independence of its Cardinals to freely elect their pope.

Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi said that reports have painted the Curia in a negative light "beyond the considerations and serene evaluations" of problems that cardinals might discuss before the conclave.

It is viewed that because the Vatican bureaucracy is heavily Italian, Cardinals might be persuaded to elect a non-Italian, non-Vatican-based cardinal as Pope to try to impose some reform on the Curia.

While Rev Lombardi has said the reports "do not correspond to reality," the Pope and some of his closest collaborators have recently denounced the dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, for example, criticised the "divisions, dissent, careerism, jealousies" that afflict the Vatican bureaucracy.

He made the comments yesterday, the penultimate day of the Vatican's weeklong spiritual exercises that were attended by the pope and other officials.

Cardinal Ravasi, himself a papal contender, was chosen by Pope Benedict to deliver daily meditations and Pope Benedict praised him for his "brilliant" work today.

The divisions Cardinal Ravasi spoke of were exposed by the documents taken from the Pope's study by his butler and then leaked by a journalist.

The documents revealed the petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism and even allegations of a gay plot at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

The three Cardinals who investigated the theft had wide-ranging powers to interview even Cardinals to get to the bottom of the dynamics within the Curia that resulted in the gravest Vatican security breach in modern times.

Pope Benedict too has made reference to the divisions in recent days, deploring in his final Mass as pope on Ash Wednesday how the Church is often "defiled" by attacks and divisions from within.

Last Sunday, he urged its members to overcome "pride and egoism."

Today, in his final comments to the Curia, Pope Benedict lamented the "evil, suffering and corruption" that have defaced God's creation.

But he also thanked the Vatican bureaucrats for having helped him "bear the burden" of his ministry with their work, love and faith these past eight years.

The Vatican's attack on the media echoed its response to previous scandals, where it has tended not to address the underlying content of accusations, but has diverted attention away.

During the 2010 explosion of sex abuse scandals, the Vatican accused the media of trying to attack the Pope.

During the 2012 leaks scandal, it accused the media of sensationalism without addressing the content of the leaked documents.

Elsewhere, A call by a Scottish cardinal for the Catholic Church to end its celibacy rule for the priesthood will "raise some eyebrows" in the Vatican in the run-up to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, historians have said.

Catholic scholar Michael Walsh said there was "absolutely no chance" of the celibacy rule being changed overnight.

This follows remarks by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who said many priests struggle to cope with celibacy and should be able to marry and have a family.

Cardinal O'Brien, 74, who has been known until now for his outspoken defence of orthodox Catholic views on issues such as gay marriage, was speaking ahead of a trip to Rome where he will  vote in the upcoming conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI following his decision to resign.