The scandal concerns, amongst other issues, unclear schemes by conservative groups like Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione and Legionaries of Christ, heavy Church interference with Italian politics under Berlusconi, widespread bribery, corruption and unbridled power struggles within Vatican City and in the Church worldwide, as well as money laundering and abuses at the Vatican bank, to which Nuzzi devoted his previous book — based on the archives of Renato Nardozzi, a prelate with high responsibilities in the Vatican bank (Vaticano S.p.A., Milano, 2009).
Some leaks refer to past affairs, such as the disappearance in 1983 of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15 year old daughter of a Vatican bank’s civil employee. Emanuela is believed by the family to have been kidnapped and killed in circumstances involving both the Vatican City and La Banda della Magliana, the wealthiest criminal gang in Rome at the time. The body of Renato De Pedis, the last boss of the Magliana gang gunned down in 1990 was mysteriously buried in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare. Under the pressure of the public opinion, Church officials could not oppose a forensic inspection by the Italian police started on 14 May 2012, the results of which are still unknown. Eventually the body of De Pedis was moved from the Basilica to a cemetery on 18 June 2012.
Other leaks concern recent affairs. This includes the case involving three letters by Dino Boffo, the former director of the bishops’ daily newspaper, who resigned in 2009 after a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family disclosed that Boffo himself had pleaded guilty and settled in a case of harassment linked to the alleged homosexuality of the journalist. Letters accuse the director of the newspaper of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, to have triggered the campaign against Boffo, upon a mandate by Vatican secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
Vatileaks raises two sets of problems. The first pertains to the specific issues exposed in the documents, from financial crimes to power struggles, and the spectacular failure in addressing them adequately. Even before Vatileaks, each issue was already extremely problematic. Documents aggravate the situation: they denounce the in-fight between Church groups and ambitious individuals, which hinders a proper management of the scandals. Documents also point at the mixture of money, corruption and abuses lying behind the central government of the Church. The second set of problems pertain to the leaks as such: who stole the documents, how and why? And by which means should the Curia and the Church respond?
So far the reaction of Church representatives to the appalling picture emerging from the documents has been dramatically inadequate. No serious analysis of the deep historical and theological reasons of the crisis has even been attempted. Seemingly Vatican authorities are not interested in a plain and transparent reconstruction of facts and motives. The protection of the Church through secrecy and expedient tactics is the dominating pattern of response. A threefold elusive strategy emerges, comprising stigmatisation of scapegoats, auto-absolution and indulgence in a pessimistic and cynical reading of the history of the Church.
The most recurrent explanation more or less directly suggested by bishops and Catholic media is that the Vatileak is a plot by enemies of the Church. Although documents were not stolen and handed out by Atheists or Islamists, the alarm is launched that vague external enemies are after the Pope. This is, of course, not enough to appease anxious public opinion. Internal scapegoats are needed. Secretary of State Bertone, the metaphor for arrogant and unscrupulous abuses of power, is the ideal culprit and victim exposed by the Catholic media and commentators.
Victimisation of scapegoats prepares a second fundamental attitude: absolution of the Church as a whole and particularly the Pope. The Pope is courageous, the Pope has spoken out, the Pope is as saint as the milieu he must live in is sordid. In a childish inversion of responsibilities, it is believed that it was not the Pope who appointed the wrong man as his secretary of State and who failed to direct him; rather it was Bertone who betrayed the Pope. However, even if one has to accept the scapegoat-based explanation, still the question remains: why was it possible? The third element provides the answer, namely a pessimistic and cynical reading of the Church: men are sinners; corruption in the Church is unavoidable.
Such threefold strategy bears concrete consequences. The authorities of Vatican City, a sovereign State, began criminal proceedings against the still unknown authors of the leak. Nuzzi affirms he owes the documents to a group of anonymous prelates, who resolved to take action against the corrupt establishment and namely against Bertone; documents were handed over to him by means, which could fit in a spy story. So far the only indicted person is the butler of the Pope who was arrested and detained in a cell within the territory of Vatican City. Scapegoats and absolution became real through the machine of Vatican law and order. No cardinal or prelate was indicted. “The butler did it”. The strategy worked: the spy story seduced and distracted public opinion; in turn, by no means was any fundamental point at stake seriously addressed.
Worse still, the forceful Vatican reaction against the butler exposed the anachronism of this remnant of Pontifical temporal power. In order to skip the danger, the Vatican criminal procedure was presented as compliant with the basic standards of liberal-democracies. Indeed, the legal system of Vatican City have the appearance of upholding the rule of law and is capable of operating as such, but is impregnated by an absolutistic nature, as it is subservient to the absolute sovereignty of the Holy See (the Pope and the central government of the universal Roman Catholic Church): there is no separation of powers, no free press, no democratic check and balance, no legal publicity and transparency. The Pope is entitled to intervene at any stage, through any measure he might think appropriate. It is no surprise that Vatican City and the Holy See have not subscribed to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The more the international press realizes this incongruity, the more pressure will be put on the Holy See. The way out is to offload the burden on the Italian justice system. Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, the conservative Catholic who was appointed in 2009 to lead the reform of the Vatican bank (the “Institute for Works of Religion”) and was ousted in 2012 as the result of yet another mysterious Vatican in-war, is speaking to the Italian prosecutors who investigate on money laundering and other financial crimes through the Vatican bank. A very close acquaintance and advisor to the Pope, the banker is seeking protection in Italy. Protection he badly needs if he truly believes, as he claimed, that because of his troubles with the Vatican, he has come to fear for his life.
Far from cooperating for the sake of justice, Vatican authorities have immediately warned the Italian judges not to violate the “sovereign prerogatives” of the Holy See and Vatican City. Submitted to increasing international pressure, the Holy See is tempted to export the crisis to Italy (I have articulated this opinion in my Lo scandalo scoppiato in Vaticano può inquinare i rapporti con l’Italia, in “Corriere della Sera”, 9 giugno 2012). Vatican authorities could file a lawsuit against the author of the scandalous book, Gianluigi Nuzzi, or ask the Italian government for judicial cooperation (something which the Lateran Treaty of 1929 provides for), or more simply require the Italian authorities to keep the indicted or convicted butler under custody. By exporting the crisis beyond the borders, the Vatican authorities would soften the pressure on the Vatican judiciary; by means of anticipation, they have already put the blame on Italy, which allowed for a book based on documents stolen from the Pope to be published. Same strategy again: a new scapegoat, a renewed auto-absolution.
The more the press and opinions focus on the procedural developments of Vatileaks, the less they concentrate on the real meaning of the whole crisis. If we understand that current troubles have to be situated in the “fin de règne” of Benedict XVI, as Stéphanie Le Bars suggested in Le Monde, still we lack a deeper explanation. The crisis is the result of a combination of factors. Conservative self-righteousness and the top down imposition of a theology obsessed with orthodoxy and traditionalism, certainly played a big part in the selection of a defective leadership and corrupt cadres. The confusion between the interest of the Church and that of its representatives has been encouraged by an opaque governing style based on a code of secrecy and subtle forms of blackmailing. The mindset of high level officials in the Church, whether clerics or lay people, is dramatically out of tune with a global world in which knowledge, accountability, the critical mind, transparency and sound governance are the virtues of the strongest. For these reasons, the current crisis offers the Church of Rome, in Vatican City and beyond, the opportunity to embrace genuine change.
Marco Ventura (University of Siena).