The world hasn’t seen anything like it since Princess Diana’s butler went on trial for pocketing a few personal mementos of his late lamented mistress. Earlier this month, the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced by a Vatican court to 18 months in prison for aggravated theft. Paul Burrell was saved when the queen stepped in, regina ex machina, to halt his trial. No such luck for Gabriele, though a papal pardon is expected any day.
Gabriele, like Burrell, has insisted all along that he was only acting in the best interests of his employer. Concerned that the pope was insufficiently informed about nefarious goings-on in the Vatican, the butler decided to send him an anonymous message by taking a clutch of stolen letters and other documents to a journalist. Gianluigi Nuzzi, whose Vaticano S.p.A. (‘Vatican Ltd’), an investigation into the Vatican’s shadier financial dealings, came out in 2009, published some of what Gabriele brought him, with commentary, at the beginning of the year, in a book called Sua Santità: Le carte segrete di Benedetto XVI (‘His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI’). There are a few preliminaries about what the pope has for breakfast (milk, decaffeinated coffee, bread with butter and marmalade, and very occasionally a slice of cake) and the elaborate precautions that Nuzzi’s source took against getting caught (not all they might have been, considering Gabriele’s flat was raided by the Vatican gendarmerie on 23 May and several boxes of stolen documents were confiscated), but Nuzzi soon gets down to business.
In May 2009, Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic paper Avvenire, suggested that Silvio Berlusconi ought to lead a more sober private life. On 28 August, Il Giornale, which is owned by the Berlusconi family, dredged up an old harassment case against Boffo, claiming to have evidence that the victim was the wife of a man Boffo was having an affair with (it seems to be standard practice in the higher echelons of the Church to accuse anyone you have a grievance against of being gay). Within days, the document that Il Giornale’s claims were based on was shown to be a forgery. Vittorio Feltri, the paper’s editor, said that he’d got it from the Vatican secret service. Avvenire published a ten-point rebuttal of the charges, but Boffo stepped down anyway.
In Sua Santità, Nuzzi reproduces a fax that Boffo sent to the pope’s private secretary, Georg Gänswein, in January 2010, accusing Gian Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, ‘the pope’s newspaper’, of organising the smear campaign that forced him out. In Boffo’s view, Vian was working on behalf of Tarcisio Bertone, the cardinal secretary of state (i.e. the Vatican’s prime minister) and the second most powerful official of the Holy See after the pope. Several months later Boffo sent a fax to Angelo Bagnasco, the archbishop of Genoa and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference (which owns Avvenire), threatening to go public with his views on Vian and Bertone’s role in his downfall. Within a month, Boffo had been given a new job running the Church’s TV channel. Nuzzi points out that there’s no way of knowing whether this was consequence or coincidence.
Next up, Nuzzi presents the grievances of Carlo Maria Viganò, who felt he was punished rather than rewarded by Bertone for the job he’d done as secretary general of the Vatican City governorate, cleaning up waste and graft. He’d hoped to succeed Giovanni Lajolo as president of the governorate, but learned that was never going to happen. In a letter sent to the pope in March 2011, Viganò boasted of turning a €7.8 million deficit in 2009 into a €34.5 million surplus in 2010; of saving half a million euros on gardening costs, which he spent on upgrading the central heating system; of making ‘new deals with important companies like Siemens, with savings of up to more than 50 per cent’; and of upgrading the Vatican’s security system by installing CCTV cameras. But in this ‘kingdom divided by little feuds’, he wrote, ‘there is an attempt underway … to manipulate the budget to hide the positive results of the first year of my management.’ Viganò also accused various high-ranking officials of siphoning off funds. Nuzzi says it’s hard to believe all Viganò’s charges, but finds cause for credence in the fact that he was shortly afterwards appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States – where he found more accounts in disarray and books in need of balancing.
It’s also possible that Bertone (or whoever) thought that Viganò’s managerial talents and strong capitalist values would be better suited to Washington than the Vatican, which, to put it kindly, in many ways still relies on an older economic model. Nuzzi documents some of the tributes sent to the pope by the rich and famous – tens of thousands of euros (to be spent on good works, obviously), hams, salamis and a €100,000 white truffle – along with requests for an audience. So far, so feudal. There are also signs of some pretty loose accounting, with hefty sums washing around between accounts, banking irregularities, strategies for retaining the Church’s exemption from property taxes, and a cribsheet given to the pope to prepare for a secret (or merely private, depending on your point of view) dinner engagement with President Napolitano in January 2009 – topics of conversation to include the importance of family values (which is to say the wickedness of abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and euthanasia).
In May, just as Nuzzi’s book was being published and Gabriele arrested, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, the president of the Istituto per le Opere di Religioni (a.k.a. the Vatican Bank), under investigation for money laundering, was relieved of his duties: the post is currently unoccupied. We are still some way, however, from the financial scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, when the Vatican Bank, then under the stewardship of Paul ‘You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys’ Marcinkus, counted among its advisers Michele Sindona, who also laundered the Gambino Family’s heroin receipts (he died in jail of cyanide poisoning in 1986, two years into a life sentence for his part in the murder of the lawyer charged with liquidating his banks), and had to shell out millions in compensation after the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, of which it was the major shareholder. No one, yet, has been found hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge, though last summer a senior administrator at a bankrupt hospital in Milan that the Vatican was interested in buying up shot himself.
Even if you can’t follow all the tangled threads (and I certainly can’t), the overwhelming impression left by Nuzzi’s book, and the whole Vatileaks saga, is that the Vatican is seething with conspiracy, faction, infighting, self-interest, venality and back-stabbing. (When do they find time to pray?) The counteraccusations haven’t been slow in coming, including strong hints that the leaks are part of an orchestrated campaign against Bertone. The National Catholic Reporter said of a TV interview the cardinal gave in June: ‘perhaps the most striking element … is Bertone’s comment that the leaking of confidential documents seems “carefully aimed, and sometimes also ferocious, destructive and organised”. That language would seem to lend credence to the theory that whatever the butler’s role may have been, he did not act alone, and that there’s a larger agenda behind the leaks.’ La Repubblica’s anonymous columnist on Church affairs, ‘Il Monsignore’, reported within days of the Gabriele verdict that the word on the cloister is that the butler was a fall guy and ‘the crow is still circling’.