At the top of Tuesday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie suggested ulterior motives behind Pope Benedict XIV's abdication: "Vatican intrigue. Is there more to Pope Benedict's sudden decision to step down?" In the report that followed, chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel also insinuated something more: "Although there's no evidence to suggest a motive, other than old age, the Pope's unusual departure has left some wondering." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
Engel then turned to a random man on the street wearing a fedora, who speculated: "It could be deeper, you know, than what we've been told at the moment." Moments later, Engel provided more anonymous rumors: "Italians say his age and the weight of scandals, especially revelations of sexual abuse by priests, may have gotten to the scholarly Pontiff."
Earlier in the report, Engel proclaimed: "This morning, Roman Catholics, tourists, and even some Church officials, wondered if this can be a moment to revitalize the Church..." Critical sound bites followed of unidentified tourists milling around the Vatican. One woman declared: "Personally, I didn't agree with a lot of the things that he believed and preached." The other remarked: "I really hope this will kind of bring change for the Church."
Engel even went so far as to imply a divine message in a photo of lightening striking the top of St. Peter's Basilica: "...these images circulated around the world."
The eagerness of Engel to seize on completely unfounded speculation about the Pope's decision followed the NBC, ABC, and CBS evening newscasts on Monday all going after the Papacy and the Church.
Here is a full transcript of the February 12 report:
7:00AM ET TEASE:
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Vatican intrigue. Is there more to Pope Benedict's sudden decision to step down? And who might replace him? Is there any chance the next pope could be an American? We're live in Vatican City with new details.
7:04AM ET SEGMENT:
MATT LAUER: We're learning more this morning about the Vatican's plans to elect a new pope in the wake of Pope Benedict's surprise decision to resign at the end of this month. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel is in Vatican City. Richard, good morning.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Vatican Surprise; New Details on Plans to Elect Next Pope]
RICHARD ENGEL: Good morning, Matt. The reaction here in St. Peter's Square to what the Pope has done has been overwhelming positive, with people calling it an act of humility and courage, to make way for a younger man. 24 hours later, there's still shock in the Vatican City.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shocked, disappointed, sad.
ENGEL: This morning, Roman Catholics, tourists, and even some Church officials, wondered if this can be a moment to revitalize the Church, after Pope Benedict XVI's unexpected decision to step down.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: Personally, I didn't agree with a lot of the things that he believed and preached.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN C: I really hope this will kind of bring change for the Church.
ENGEL: In making his announcement, the 85-year-old Pontiff, who has been looking frail, asked for forgiveness. "I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," he told a gathering of cardinals in Latin, saying his advanced age forced the decision. Just hours later, these images circulated around the world.
[PHOTO OF LIGHTENING STRIKING ST. PETER'S BASILICA]
These are unusual times for the Vatican. The last time a pope abdicated under similar circumstances was more than 700 years ago, experts say, Celestine V. Pontiffs have been reluctant to leave, so they don't send mixed messages or contradict the new pope. There's no role for an ex-pope.
In the last few hours, the Pope's brother spoke.
GEORG RATZINGER: It possible the new pope will ask for his advice, but you notice that the aging process impacts body and soul. And he thinks that a younger person is needed to deal with today's problems.
ENGEL: Although there's no evidence to suggest a motive, other than old age, the Pope's unusual departure has left some wondering.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It could be deeper, you know, than what we've been told at the moment.
ENGEL: Pope Benedict will eventually move to a cloistered monastery in the Vatican, officials say, praying and reflecting, very low profile. Italians say his age and the weight of scandals, especially revelations of sexual abuse by priests, may have gotten to the scholarly Pontiff.
Bets are already being placed on who will lead the more than one billion Roman Catholics when the Pope steps down at the end of the month. The Pope will not take place in the conclave to choose his successor. Vatican officials hope a new pope will be in place by Easter, Matt.
LAUER: Alright, Richard Engel in Vatican City this morning. Richard, thank you very much.