Sex, crime and corruption in the murky history of past popes

THEY’VE plotted and deceived, they’ve been warlike, corrupt and power-hungry and they’ve sired children they shamelessly promoted: the history of popes, as cardinals mull who will succeed John Paul II, is decidedly murky.

Such accusations can in no way be levelled at John Paul II, who died on April 2 after a 26-year pontificate that inspired and enthralled many.

But it was not always so.

“The history of the papacy is the history of one of the most momentous and extraordinary institutions in the history of the world,” says Eamon Duffy in a study of popes entitled Saints and Sinners.

As cardinals go into seclusion from April 18 to elect the next head of the Roman Catholic Church, they have a history of sinning popes to look back on.

One of the most notorious popes was Alexander VI, from the scheming Borgia dynasty. During the 1492 conclave that elected him successor to Innocent VIII, “money fell like rain”, according to Peter Maxwell-Stuart of the University of Aberdeen. “The papacy had been bought.”

Alexander VI had six sons and three daughters by several women and placed all his offspring into high positions. His successor in 1503, Julius II, had three daughters while a cardinal and was a fierce warrior, leading his men into battle in silver armour against any who defied his authority.

Under Leo X, rampant corruption such as the selling of spiritual blessings in return for money led Martin Luther to start the Reformation.

Back in 882, John VIII was poisoned and clubbed to death - the first pope to be murdered.

A few years later, Pope Stephen VIII had a close predecessor, Formosus, dug up, dressed in pontifical garb and put on trial posthumously.

Stephen himself was later imprisoned and strangled.

Meanwhile Pope Sixtus IV was implicated in an inter-factional plot in 1478 that led to the murder of a leading member of the powerful Medici family.

According to Mr Maxwell-Stuart, five pontiffs have been jailed, four murdered, one openly assassinated, one deposed and one publicly flogged.

One died of wounds in battle, another when a ceiling fell on top of him.

An enduring myth is that of a pope named Joan in the ninth or 11th century who was only discovered to be a woman when she gave birth.

Still, as the two authors argue, in 2,000 years of Christianity and a total of 264 popes, there are bound to have been a few rotten apples.

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