The Vatican denied a report in an Italian newspaper that Pope Francis has a small, curable brain tumor, saying his head is "absolutely perfect."

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Wednesday categorically denied a report in an Italian newspaper that Pope Francis has a small, curable brain tumor, saying he is in good health and that his head is “absolutely perfect.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the report Wednesday in the National Daily was “completely unfounded and seriously irresponsible and not worthy of attention.” The Vatican newspaper suggested the timing of the publication smacked of an attempt to manipulate the outcome of a hotly contested meeting on family issues at the Vatican.

Citing unnamed nursing sources, the National Daily said the 78-year-old pope had traveled by helicopter to the San Rossore di Barbaricina clinic near Pisa in recent months to see a Japanese brain cancer specialist, Dr. Takanori Fukushima. The newspaper said the doctor determined that the small dark spot on Francis’ brain could be treated without surgery.

In subsequent versions, the paper said Fukushima had instead come to the Vatican to see the pope in a Vatican helicopter. The ANSA news agency, citing unnamed sources in Pisa, said the trip was in January and that Fukushima had traveled by helicopter to the Vatican to diagnose the pope.

Lombardi categorically denied the reports to journalists Wednesday, issuing three separate and increasingly exasperated denials as the day wore on and after consulting with the pope himself, who appeared in fine form during his weekly general audience.

Lombardi said no Japanese doctor had visited the pope, the pope had not travelled to Pisa, no tests of the type described in the paper had been performed and that no helicopters had landed in the Vatican from the outside.

“I can confirm that the pope is in good health,” Lombardi said. “If you were in the piazza this morning you would have seen that as well. And if you go on the trips with him, you know he has a small problem with his legs, but his head is absolutely perfect.”

The newspaper’s editor, Andrea Cangini, said he stood by the story.

Fukushima is a professor of neurosurgery at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. That he has been at the Vatican and met with the pope is not in doubt.

On his Japanese-language blog, Fukushima has an entry from September 2014, complete with photos of him meeting the pope in St. Peter’s Square. He wrote that his father had served as a priest at the Meiji Shrine and was a senior priest at the Association of Shinto Shrines and that he was “overwhelmed” to meet with Francis.

In a blog post from January-February of this year, Fukushima wrote that he went back to the Vatican on Jan. 28, via helicopter, and met with several cardinals including Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica. Both visits were arranged on the sidelines of surgical duties he was performing in Rome and elsewhere, he wrote.

A woman at the front desk of Fukushima’s clinic in Raleigh, North Carolina, said she was told not to provide any comment. No one answered the door Wednesday at a listing for Fukushima on a quiet street in the northern part of Raleigh. The Pisa hospital’s director didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

Cangini said the paper had deliberated a long time before publishing the news, which it said it had confirmed months ago.

The publication, however, comes at a delicate time for Francis, in the final days of his hotly contested synod on the family, which has shown a split among conservative and liberal bishops over how to convey the church’s teachings on marriage, sex, homosexuality and other issues.

Several conservative bishops and cardinals have complained that the synod, which Francis called, is creating confusion and “anxiety” about the church’s teachings.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, suggested that the report was aimed at manipulating the synod process.

“The moment chosen (to release it) reveals the manipulative aim,” of trying to make something out of nothing, L’Osservatore wrote.

A close confidante of Francis, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, tweeted that the attempt may have been more personal.

“Now they don’t know what else to say … After all the lies they’re now inventing illnesses! A good sign…”


Jonathan Drew contributed to this report from Raleigh, North Carolina.


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This story corrects the spelling of the Japanese doctor’s surname to Fukushima, not Fukishima.