The Vatican's number two, the reported target of a power struggle in the Church, alleged divisive forces at work on Monday as the Holy See said 23 people had been questioned in a leaks scandal.

In a rare outburst, the Secretary of State appeared to lash out at those who, according to religious observers, have been orchestrating the scandal in an attempt to oust him, and slammed media for "Dan Brown-style" reporting.

Tarcisio Bertone told the Famiglia Cristiana magazine that there was "a fierce and relentless attempt to create divisions between the Holy Father and his collaborators, and between the collaborators themselves."

In interview extracts published Monday, Bertone turned on the alleged plotters, saying there was "something unjust" in wanting "to attack those who dedicate themselves with great passion and personal toil to the Church's good."

Bertone also rounded on the media, accusing them of writing fiction worthy of Dan Brown's lurid allegations and intrigues in the "Da Vinci Code" novel.

"Many journalists like to play at imitating Dan Brown. They continue to make up fairy tales or re-hash legends," he said.

However, the cardinal insisted he enjoyed support from many quarters within the Church: "I am at the heart of the fray. And I see painful things but I also see the Church by my side, people from every background who show affection."

Bertone said he had seen "no sign" that there were cardinals behind the leak of highly sensitive documents from the tiny state.

"I have not personally seen any sign of implicated cardinals, or a fight between ecclesiastical characters to conquer an imaginary power," he said.

Religious watchers have said it is unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI's butler Paolo Gabriele -- arrested on May 23 on accusations of leaking secret papal papers -- would have orchestrated such a large whistle-blowing operation alone.

Italian newspapers have said at least two cardinals are likely involved.

Bertone said the pope had felt betrayed and "has asked himself several times, why Gabriele, who he loved like a son, should have behaved that way."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told a press conference Monday that the three retired cardinals appointed by the pope to head an investigative commission on the leaks scandal had already interviewed 23 people.

Lombardi refused to confirm media reports Gabriele has been spilling the beans on fellow whistle-blowers in an attempt to curry the Vatican's pardon.

"Be careful with your sources," he warned the journalists present.

[Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (right) watches Pope Benedict XVI in Milan on June 1. AFP Photo/Daniel Dal Zennaro]