Whatever the butler’s role, the Vatican has questions to answer

It has all the makings of a Hollywood adaptation of a Dan Brown novel. Secrets of the Vatican exposed, documents stolen from the pope’s desk, rows and rivalries between cardinals, vast sums of money, the involvement of the cultish organisation Opus Dei. And then the so-called Vatileaks scandal, which has had Rome agog for months, went a bit Da Vinci Code meets Cluedo: the butler allegedly did it.

Paolo Gabriele, who has worked for Pope Benedict XVI as one of his most personal aides for six years, has now been charged and sent to trial by a Vatican judge for leaking papal documents, including papers containing allegations of corruption and other financial problems.

The Vatileaks scandal has been a deeply embarrassing saga for the most senior echelons of the Catholic church, and it is surprising that it has attracted so little attention in Britain. The plight of 46-year-old Gabriele himself, for instance, has shocked Catholic observers. After his arrest he was incarcerated for 50 days, initially in solitary confinement in a cell deep inside the Vatican; then under house arrest in his apartment within the Vatican City State. Despite the Catholic church still using Latin as an official language, it didn’t appear to understand habeas corpus. Yet human rights experts barely reacted to what was happening: when my publication, the Tablet, contacted Amnesty International about the butler’s situation, it had nothing to say.

Only the LSE’s Prof Conor Gearty, writing in the Tablet, pointed out the scandal of it, particularly given how vocal Rome usually is about human rights. But Vatileaks is a much more disturbing episode than just the treatment of one individual. First a television programme, then leaks in the press and eventually a book by the investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuuzi exposed thwarted efforts to deal with corruption within the Vatican City State, which the Catholic church runs.

Letters taken from Pope Benedict’s desk are filled with complaints made to him by senior clerics about the hopeless bureaucracy of the church, comments that it is out of touch, and the frustrations of those working in the corridors of power. There were also revelations of infighting among Vatican officials, including those involved in the so-called Vatican Bank, otherwise known as the Institute for the Works of Religion. One series of papers revealed that the bank had found loopholes to exonerate it from full compliance with newly adopted international money laundering regulations. A bitter feud was exposed between those who want the Vatican admitted to the OECD’s list of financially virtuous states and those who consider that this would compromise its Institute for the Works of Religion.

Also adding spice to the mix has been the role of Opus Dei. Greg Burke, a member of the secretive Catholic organisation, has moved from Fox News’s Rome bureau to help the Vatican with PR, and Pope Benedict has appointed Cardinal Julian Herranz, the former right-hand man of Opus Dei’s late founder, to run the investigation into the leaks. And then there has been evidence of deep jealousies within the Vatican court, particularly of the pope’s closest aide, his trusted secretary Monsignor Georg Ganswein, and his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. That has caused many people to be sceptical that the butler acted alone, and to suggest that enemies of Ganswein and Bertone, as well as those who believe there is something rotten in the state of the Vatican City, were involved. Nuzzi himself says his source represents a group of people “fed up with crooks and power games”.

What Catholics need to see now is not only a group of clerics and the Vatican police, or gendarmerie, investigating the butler, but an investigation into the truth of the allegations in the leaked documents. The Catholic church’s reputation is on the line, as it was over child abuse and evidence of cover-ups over that scandal.

The extraordinary work it does across the world with the poor, with migrants, in education and in running hospitals is in danger of being ignored if it remains so reluctant to admit scrutiny of its internal workings. The world, though, will nevertheless turn its focus to the petty intrigues of a medieval court. And that factional wrangling risks undermining the papacy itself.

Catherine Pepinster is editor of Catholic weekly The Tablet.

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