02.26.12

Who’s Behind the Leaked Letters Roiling the Vatican?

Newly leaked letters to Pope Benedict XVI have laid bare sordid allegations of corruption and infighting within the Holy See. Is it a ploy to influence who the next pope will be?

Are “Vatileaks,” as the Vatican leaks have been dubbed, really just a brilliant campaign strategy ahead of the next papal conclave or a sneaky way to show fiscal transparency ahead of a key European Union decision on the Vatican’s anti-terrorism finance compliance?

For weeks, Vatican reporters in Rome have been lapping up salacious details about alleged church corruption and holy infighting that’s been drip-fed from a yet-unknown source inside the hallowed halls of the Holy See.

The first leaked letters on Vatican stationery, complete with the Holy See Chancellery stamp, came to light in late January, when Italy’s acclaimed independent La7 news program, The Untouchables, broadcast private letters sent in 2011 from Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano to Pope Benedict XVI and other higher ups in the Roman Curia. Vigano had been making marked progress in his battle against corruption and cronyism as deputy governor in charge of financial reforms of Vatican City. But he was fiercely disliked by a number of high-ranking cardinals, who were successful in getting their nemesis moved out of Rome.

Last August, Vigano was suddenly appointed papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States. But Vigano felt that if he were moved out of Rome it would send the wrong signal—that anyone who fights the church’s corruption won’t get to do it for long. In one of the last letters he wrote before his transfer was final, he pleaded with the pope to let him stay.  “Holy Father, my transfer at this time would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments.” He was moved anyway.

In another set of letters exposed by La7, Vigano pleaded with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, that his anticorruption work continue after his departure. He cited a panel of three Italian bankers who he said were bleeding the Holy See dry by awarding contracts for Vatican bids to their friends, instead of the lowest bidder. He cited one incident in which the Vatican is said to have lost $2.5 million by awarding a work contract to an unqualified firm that had ties to the Vatican’s internal bank, effectively, he said, a cover for a money-laundering scheme. “The contracts are always given to the same companies at costs at least double those charged by firms outside the Vatican,” he lamented in the now-published letter. “Our bankers look after their interests more than ours.”

More letters surfaced in mid-February in the muckraking daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotodiano, exposing a vast array of inner-Curia conflicts and the Vatican’s knowledge of an alleged plot to kill Pope Benedict XVI within a year. These letters were written by Cardinal Paolo Romeo after a state visit to China in November, in which he discussed his worry about the pope’s safety. 

The Vatileaks scandal has exposed what appears to be fierce infighting within the Holy See.  With Pope Benedict XVI’s ailing health and last week’s consistory in which he named 22 new cardinals who will ultimately be part of the conclave that decides his successor, internal politics are certainly in play. But the leaks may be by design. Some Vatican pundits have suggested that by exposing the alleged corruption, those who can then fix the problem by offering greater transparency may ultimately benefit when it comes time to vote for the next pope. “These leaks are intended to settle scores ahead of the next conclave,” says Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli, who writes a blog for La Stampa newspaper. “Very little is unscripted at the Vatican.”

Another theory about what’s really behind the leaks is that by exposing the Vatican’s financial vulnerabilities now, the Vatican has a chance to tidy up the books and polish its reputation by June, when the European Commission will consider the Vatican’s inclusion on the “white list” of anti-terrorism financial entities that abide by the international rules of transparency. This coveted honor is said to be a priority for the Holy See, which has for decades been plagued by rumors and allegations that it is a corruption-laden tax haven for a number of high-profile secret investors. In some documents leaked last week, revelations that the Vatican’s financial patrons may include highly questionable clientele rocked Rome. 

Some Vatican pundits have suggested that by exposing the alleged corruption, those who can then fix the problem by offering greater transparency may ultimately benefit when it comes time to vote for the next pope.

Some documents that have been exposed in recent weeks have also shown what appear to be moves to scupper efforts by Italy’s interim technocratic government under Mario Monti to get the church to pay property taxes. The Vatican owns an estimated 20 percent of all real estate in Italy, and its tax bill is estimated to be about $100 million annually. Property owned by the Catholic Church is exempt from property taxes as long as the properties serve a religious function. That means hotels, schools, and other church property need only contain a chapel to be exempt from taxes. 

The Vatican does not deny the authenticity of any of the letters that have been leaked. But it has condemned whoever is breaching the once-secret institution. An editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, said the pope wouldn’t be “stopped by these wolves” set to destroy the sanctity of the church’s highly guarded inner workings. The Vatican’s official spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said the leaks were meant to discredit the church as a whole. “These leaks are intended to sow confusion and to show the Vatican, the Curia, and the church itself in a bad light.” Now the question is whether Vatileaks will lead to greater transparency or even more secrecy from one of world’s most hallowed institutions.