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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI defended his Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone against "unjust criticism" on Wednesday, after leaked confidential documents revealed growing opposition to the powerful prelate.
"Having noted with regret the unjust criticism raised against his person, I wish to attest once more my personal confidence" in "the revered and dear brother," the pope said in a letter published by the Vatican.
The secret papers have lifted the lid on deep-seated venom among rival figures in the Vatican, and one theory is that the scandal is an attempt to unseat Bertone, who is considered by some to wield too much power.
"I wish to express my deep gratitude for his discreet support and enlightened advice, which I have found particularly helpful over the past few months," Benedict said in his letter.
Bertone, who will be 78 years old in December -- three years older than the common retirement age for cardinals -- has offered several times to resign, but the pope has insisted each time that he stay in his post.
Reports suggest the plot may run even deeper, with disgruntled cardinals orchestrating the leaks because they believe Pope Benedict is weak and they have already begun preparing to get their own man elected as future pope.
Last month, Bertone denounced the leak scandal as a "ferocious, biting and organized" attack on the pope, but said however that Benedict "is not letting himself be scared by these attacks, whatever their nature."
The scandal led in May to the arrest of the pope's personal butler Paolo Gabriele, who was accused of possessing secret documents to the surprise of many within the Vatican, where he was known for papal devotion and loyalty.
The Holy See investigation into the scandal, which has seen dozens of people questioned, is due to wind up later this month.
In June, an anonymous whistleblower told the Italian daily La Repubblica that Gabriele was merely a scapegoat and pointed the finger of blame on Bertone and Georg Gaenswein, one of Benedict's personal secretaries.
"Kick out of the Vatican those who are really responsible for the scandal: Mr. Gaenswein and Cardinal Bertone," the source told the paper.
The documents, splashed in the Italian press and published in a recent book, have shed light on many Vatican secrets, including the Church's tax problems, child sex scandals and negotiations with hardline traditionalist rebels.