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Conspiracies Swirl As Vatican Scandal Engulfs Rome

Jun 2, 2012
Originally published on June 2, 2012 7:13 pm

The scandal over leaked documents that has been engulfing the Vatican is the biggest breach of confidence and security at the Holy See in recent memory.

Known as Vatileaks, the crisis has shed light on a Vatican gripped by intrigue and power struggles like a Renaissance court.

Vatileaks erupted into a full-blown scandal with the publication two weeks ago of a book of Vatican documents alleging corruption and conspiracies among cardinals.

Within days, the Vatican bank president was abruptly dismissed and the pope's own butler was arrested on charges of stealing the pope's correspondence.

The Vatican denounced the leaking of papal letters as a brutal attack and launched a three-pronged investigation to find the moles.

This week, Pope Benedict XVI broke his silence and denounced what he called false media coverage.

"There has been increasing conjecture, amplified by the communications media, which is entirely gratuitous, goes beyond the facts and presents a completely unrealistic image of the Holy See," the pope said.

Official At Heart Of Controversy

The scandal has focused attention on the intrigues in the Curia — or government — whose name comes from the Latin word for royal court.

"In the past if there were power struggles in Roman Curia, it was much more about doctrinal interpretations, about gossip — he has a girlfriend; the other is gay," says Vatican analyst Marco Politi. This time, he adds, the stakes are much higher.

"There is a well-organized group of dissidents who want to overthrow the secretary of state," Politi says.

The secretary of state — or Vatican prime minister — is Pope Benedict's hand-picked deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the British Catholic daily The Tablet, says Bertone has alienated key Vatican officials, who consider him insufficiently experienced in diplomacy and management.

"The accusation against Bertone is that he came in through cronyism, nepotism and favoritism, and by his own quest for consolidating power," Mickens says.

Cleanup Efforts Triggered Events

Politi says what set off the leaks plot was Bertone's sacking of a top administrator who had denounced corruption inside the Holy See. The administrator was kicked upstairs — he is now Vatican ambassador to the U.S.

"[Archbishop] Carlo Maria Vigano wanted to clean up the situation," says Politi. "He met a lot of resistance, but the end result was not that he got a prize from the secretary of state, but he was fired and sent as nuncio to Washington."

The Vatican bank was another source of tension. Thirty years ago, it was enmeshed in allegations of money-laundering and Mafia links. The Vatican now wants to join the so-called white list of countries that share financial information to fight tax evasion, which would help rid the Holy See of its reputation for shady transactions and as a tax haven.

But Bertone insists on sharing information only for future transactions, not for those in the past, leading to a clash with the bank president — who is also accused of having leaked documents.

Dire Need For Reform

Vatican analysts agree that the pope's butler, the mild-mannered 46-year-old Paolo Gabriele, could not have acted alone and is not the whistle-blowing mastermind.

Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist who published the leaked letters, will not reveal his sources. And he's is not at all convinced about Gabriele's guilt.

"It's the Vatican press office that announced that many documents were found in the butler's home," Nuzzi says. "Now, if he is the whistle-blower he must be really stupid to hold on to all stuff. And it's very disturbing that the trial will be held in secret."

But even if Vatican trials are closed to the public, analyst Politi says, news of the proceedings will leak out and provide further embarrassment for Benedict.

"The pope in the last six to seven months has let happen so many scandals about money and [transparency], that now the Roman Curia and Catholic public opinion is in great disarray, everybody asking, 'What's going on?' " Politi says.

Mickens, the reporter, says the Vatican is in dire need of structural reforms.

"It's a courtlike situation that is staffed and run by people who have no experience growing up in a court," says Mickens. "They're all from democratic societies; it's just not suited for the 21st century; and it is nowhere to be found in the Gospels, or Scriptures — it's a cultural anachronism."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And the Vatican's facing another dilemma - a leaks scandal that's become the biggest breach of confidence and security at the Holy See in recent memory. NPR's Sylva Poggioli reports that the crisis known as VatiLeaks has shed light on a Vatican that's seemed like a Renaissance court, gripped by intrigue and power struggles.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: VatiLeaks erupted with the release two weeks ago of a book of documents alleging Vatican corruption and conspiracies. The Vatican denounced the leaks as a brutal attack and launched a three-pronged investigation to find the moles. The Vatican bank president was abruptly dismissed and the pope's own butler was arrested on charges of stealing the pope's correspondence. This week, the pope broke his silence and denounced what he called false media coverage.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Through Translator) There has been increasing conjecture, amplified by the communications media, which is entirely gratuitous, goes beyond the facts and presents a completely unrealistic image of the Holy See.

POGGIOLI: The scandal has focused attention on the intrigues in the Curia or government.

MARCO POLITI: In the past if there were power struggles in Roman curia, it was much more about doctrinal interpretations, about gossip - he has a girlfriend, the other is gay.

POGGIOLI: Vatican analyst Marco Politi says this time the stakes are much higher.

POLITI: There is a well-organized group of dissidents who want to overthrow the secretary of state.

POGGIOLI: The secretary of state - or Vatican prime minister - is Pope Benedict's hand-picked deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent for the English Catholic daily The Tablet, says Bertone has alienated key Vatican officials.

ROBERT MICKENS: The accusation against Bertone is that he came in through cronyism, nepotism and favoritism and by his own quest for consolidating power.

POGGIOLI: Vatican analyst Politi says the leaks plot was set off by Bertone's sacking of a top administrator who had denounced corruption. The administrator was kicked upstairs. He's now Vatican ambassador to the U.S.

POLITI: Carlo Maria Vigano, he wanted to clean up the situation. He met a lot of resistance, but the end result was not that he got a prize from the secretary of state, but he was fired and sent as nunzio to Washington.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican bank was another source of tension. Thirty years ago, it was enmeshed in allegations of money-laundering and mafia links. The Vatican now wants to join the so-called white list of countries that share financial information to fight tax evasion. That would help rid the Holy See of its reputation for shady transactions and as a tax haven. But Bertone insists on sharing information only for future transactions, not for those in the past, leading to a clash with the bank president, who was also accused of having leaked documents. Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist who published the leaked letters, will not reveal his sources. And, like most analysts, he's convinced the mild-mannered butler did not act alone.

GIANLUIGI NUZZI: (Through Translator) It's the Vatican press office that says documents were found in the butler's home. Now, if he is the whistleblower he must be really stupid to hold on to all stuff. And it's very disturbing that the trial will be held in secret.

POGGIOLI: But even if Vatican trials are closed to the public, analyst Politi says, news will leak out and further embarrass Benedict.

POLITI: The pope, in last six, seven months has let happen so many scandals about money and transparence that now the Roman curia, also the Catholic public opinion is in great disarray, because everybody's asking what's going on?

POGGIOLI: The Vatican, reporter Mickens says, is like a Renaissance court.

MICKENS: That is staffed and run by people who have no experience growing up in a court. They're all from democratic societies. It's just not suited for the 21st century certainly, and it's nowhere to be found in the gospels or the scriptures. It's a cultural anachronism.

POGGIOLI: Today, the Vatican is the western world's last absolute monarchy. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.