TODAY   |  March 08, 2013

Pope’s ex-butler leaked documents

In a scoop being referred to as Vatileaks, the pope’s former butler passed hundreds of pages of documents he smuggled out of the pope’s apartment to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, the contents of which some believe forced the pope to resign. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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>>> more than a week after his resignation became official, there are still a lot of controversial theories about why pope benedict xvi stepped down. nbc 's chief correspondent richard engel is looking into them at the vatican . richard, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning, lester. just the first bit of news today. vatican spokesperson said we should know the date of the start of the conclave some time this afternoon, rome time. that's the process by which the cardinals will elect a new pope. but what we still don't know, not definitively anyway, is why pope benedict decided to retire. and the main theory is that it wasn't just because of his age and health, but that he became aware of a number of controversies among the vatican 's top leadership, first exposed by an italian investigative journalist .

>> are you the man who brought down the pope?

>> translator: no. how can you think a journalist can bring down a pope?

>> reporter: but many believe that's exactly what happened. this journalist exposed some of the vatican 's most guarded secrets. a scoop seen in italy as big as watergate. italians call it vatileaks. the pope's butler passed about 100 pages of documents he photocopied and smuggled out of the pope's own apartment to this journalist, now an nbc consultant. it was a cloak and dagger operation, with meetings between he and the butler in public squares, conversations only by old-fashioned public telephones. the butler's leaked documents revealed problems in the vatican bank , and allegations of a twisted web involving money, power and sex. he says the butler thought he was trying to help the pope.

>> the butler described himself as an infiltrator for the holy spirit in the vatican n a sense, i think he thought he was making history. and i think, as things turned out, he really did.

>> reporter: the vatican bank has denied allegations of corruption, but several vatican experts have a theory, that the pope resigned not only for health reasons, but also because he didn't have the strength to deal with the scandals inside the vatican . experts told us his resignation was an act of sacrifice, to save the catholic church .

>> my view is that it was a very courageous act, actually. and perhaps at the end of the day it will be seen as the defining moment of his papacy and his real legacy.

>> reporter: so the only way for him to bring down those around him was to fall on his own sword?

>> i think that's right. this was not just his resignation. it was a way of firing everybody.

>> reporter: the pope sealed the 300-page report on the vatileaks schedule, saying it can only be read by his successor. its contents may be the one vatican secret that will never be revealed. some cardinals here in rome have started to ask about the leaks and scandals and say they need to know about them in order to make an informed choice of the next pope. lester?

>> richard engel at the vatican , thanks. you'll have more, we should note tonight on "rock center with brian williams " at 9:00, 10:00 central time here on nbc .