The Vatican has long been said by those who know it to be a nest of vipers. But recently, the poison has been laid bare for everyone to see as leak after embarrassing leak has revealed an institution at war with itself.
Already this year we’ve read about documents warning of a “death threat” against the Pope, widespread nepotism and corruption, exiled whistle-blowers, gay smear campaigns and embarrassing revelations about the Vatican’s tax affairs. Most of the damaging of the “Vatileaks” were revealed by the reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi in a series of TV programmes and now his new book Sua Santità (Your Holiness).
As ever, lumbering several steps behind, the powers that be at the Holy See last month set out to catch the mole or moles behind the leaks – which they refer to as “criminal acts”. The Pope’s butler has already been nabbed in possession of some of the confidential papers. But few people think he acted alone.
Yesterday, we learnt that an unnamed Italian cardinal is now a suspect. But even if all the leakers are caught, few observers think that there’s an end in sight for the PR disasters that have blighted the reign of 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI. The stately Vatican Insider website, for its part, blamed an intrusive modern media. “Scandals even graver than this (such as the Calvi case) occurred in the Wotyla papacy, but today the media coverage is multiplied,” it said.
Unloved Benedict might reasonably claim his record is more virtuous than that of his PR-savvy predecessor John Paul II. As Mr Nuzzi noted: “During the papacy of John Paul II paedophilia was not pursued like it has been today. This pope has removed 50 priests. John Paul II covered it up.”
The Vatican Insider failed to note, though, that key scandals – such as the London murder of Roberto “God’s Banker” Calvi , which took place on John Paul II’s watch – continue to taint the Vatican. Earlier this year, magistrates in Rome lamented publicly that officials at the Holy See were still refusing to co-operate with their attempts to resolve the mystery involving the Vatican bank and what is alleged to be mafia cash.
“It makes me laugh to think that the Vatican is now asking for help from Italian magistrates even though it has never responded to demands asked of it on many events, such as these,” said Mr Nuzzi in an interview with the Micro Mega magazine at the weekend regarding Vatican claims that he had acted illegally.
For Valerio Gigante, a vaticanologist at the Adista religious news website, the church is suffering a moral crisis. “The contradiction at the heart of the church grows greater all the time. It exists for moral reasons but also generates huge amounts of money and is ever more occupied with political and economic power,” he said.
Another Vatican watcher, Robert Mickens of The Tablet, has a simpler take the Holy See’s woes. “It’s arrogance. The people in charge still think the Vatican is above ordinary laws.”
He says last week’s sacking of the Vatican bank chief Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was another example of this. Mr Gotti Tedeschi is believed by many to have fallen foul of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s number two and the Pope’s chief of staff, by insisting on more stringent anti-corruption rules.
The respected financier’s card was probably marked, too, when he last year failed to support the Vatican’s planned €250m rescue package for the bankrupt, scandal-ridden San Raffaele teaching hospital founded by the wheeler-dealing catholic priest Don Luigi Verzè.
Observers also point to the Vatican’s decision in April to censure nuns in the US for daring to “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops” on key social issues. “All these things are symptoms of a bigger problem. The structure of the Vatican – an absolute monarchy – is no longer suitable for the modern world,” said Mr Mickens. The difficulty the Vatican faces in having to justify medieval attitudes in the era of an inquisitive, 24-hour-a-day digital media is exacerbated by the fact that Benedict and Bertone, are so disliked that they’re unable to paper over the cracks.
The Pope’s overtures to the extremist and anti-Semitic Society of Saint Pius X’s, with which he shares a love of traditional Catholic Mass, is thought to have angered many church figures. But it is Cardinal Bertone who is usually seen as the common denominator in the endless Vatican in-fighting. In consolidating power for himself and in placing close confidantes and cronies in the key positions in the Holy See, Cardinal Bertone, has made many enemies.
The animosity he faces is heightened by his reputation for being mentally unspectacular and for having little diplomatic experience – despite now overseeing the Holy See’s foreign relations. Last summer, Bertone even received a death threat, which Panorama magazine blamed on his exiling of the difficult priest Viganò to the other side of the Atlantic. In his new book, Mr Nuzzi also refers to the saga of the long-running power-struggle between Bertone and the Italian Bishops Conference, which has been linked to the leaking of documents claiming that Dino Boffo, the editor of the Bishops’ daily paper L’Avvenire, was a “renowned homosexual” and stalker.
But despite the political poison and claims by respected observers such as Corriere della Sera’s Massimo Franco that the leadership is suffering a “profound crisis of identity and credibility”, few observers expect any immediate changes at the top.
Earlier this year, an anonymous letter made the headlines for its warning of a death threat against the Pontiff. Intriguingly, it also suggested that relations between Cardinal Bertone and the Pope were falling apart. Not many people believe that. But even it were true, the pair have little choice but to support each other to the bitter end.
Now the question is how low will the Vatican’s reputation sink before that day arrives?
Michael Day, The Independent