Investigative journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi first met “Maria” in the spring of 2011 at a secret rendezvous in an unfurnished apartment under the shadow of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. He had been summoned there by secret Vatican insiders who had vetted him for weeks through banal meetings in coffee houses and cocktail bars. They followed him, checked out his friends, even set up false appointments just to observe him. When they finally trusted him, he met the informers who would betray the Catholic Church like no one before. In a massive document dump that has been dubbed “VatiLeaks,” Nuzzi managed to shed light on an institution that has been enshrined in secrecy for centuries.
For a year Nuzzi was a conduit for sensitive documents that surfaced from deep within the Curia Romana, which he highlighted in his Italian television show The Untouchables. This week, he published the documents in full in a book called Sua Santità—Le Carte Segrete di Benedetto XVI or Your Holiness: The Secret Papers ofBenedict XVI. He says he kept the documents on a USB key sewn into his neckties, and he worried constantly that someone might try to harm him or steal them back.
Since his first television program, VatiLeaks has made a major impact in Rome. The reopening of the criminal investigation into the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee who disappeared 30 years ago, has come to symbolize the VatiLeaks scandal and a small victory for transparency in the Roman Catholic Church. And earlier this month, the Holy See conceded to allow the opening of the tomb of a notorious mobster who was interred inside a Vatican church in an unprecedented act of cooperation with Italian police who want to find the truth in the Orlandi case. “The people who provided these documents did it because they’d had enough of the lies,” Nuzzi told The Daily Beast. “They did it at great risk, and if they are ever found out, they will likely disappear without a trace.”
Nuzzi had touched a nerve with his 2010 Vatican SPA, an investigative book on the Vatican banking practices. He says he was likely chosen as the messenger for these documents because he had challenged the church before. When he was summoned to meet his main source, “Maria”—whose gender and age remain a secret—he says he didn’t know what to expect.
He was given keys to a nondescript apartment in the Prati district of Rome, which was completely void of furniture except for one plastic chair in the middle of the marble-floored living room. “As a journalist you often follow blind leads and meet with people who know little or nothing,” Nuzzi says. “But I knew right away that this was going to be the biggest thing I’d ever been involved with.”
The two had a standing meeting at the apartment on Thursdays to avoid having to use the telephone or other traceable means of communication. Sometimes other informants would come, other times “Maria” would fail to show up, so Nuzzi would go back the following week. He says he thinks his sources gave him the documents out of duty after witnessing years of lies and manipulation by the church. “Since Karol Wojtyla [Pope John Paul II] died, I started putting copies of documents aside that I came across in my job at the Vatican,” Nuzzi quotes “Maria” in the book. “The truth emerging in the newspapers and the official discourse within the Holy See was so different, the hypocrisy reigned supreme, and the scandals were multiplying. I’m not talking only about the pedophilia and murder cases like the killing of the Swiss Guard and the disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, but about money laundering, corruption, and threats.”
The heavily footnoted book has photos of the documents and transcripts of the letters, faxes, and internal memorandums between Pope Benedict XVI and key Italian politicians and world leaders. Some of the documents are titillating, like secret correspondence from Dino Boffo, the former editor of the Catholic newspaper Avvenire, asking a high-ranking cardinal and the pope to intervene against editor Gain Maria Vian of the rival Catholic newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, who had leaked allegations that Boffo had harassed the wife of his gay lover. There are also letters from Italian public figures like Bruno Vespa, a well-known television journalist—like an Italian Mike Wallace—whose note with a donation of €10,000 donation to the church included a peculiar postscript: “When can I have a private audience?” One document outlines the trail of a €100,000 white truffle, donated by a prestigious Italian in exchange for a papal favor, which ended up in a soup-kitchen pasta lunch for the homeless.
The book also contains ample reference to the troubled American church, which was nearly bankrupted by legal costs and payments to victims of pedophile priests. In spite of its strategic importance for the Roman Catholic Church, the American church was considered a purgatory in terms of papal appointments. No one wanted to be “sent to Washington” to deal with the crises, which included the pedophilia scandal, the liberal American nuns, and liberal government policies that contradicted key church teachings. Nuzzi was given a number of documents referencing multi-million-dollar transfers to bail out the American diocese, including $10 million sent to the Wilmington, Del., Federal Bankruptcy Court, which shows for the first time just how much money the American church has cost the Holy See.
Anyone who crossed the wrong cardinals in Rome risked being sent to oversee the troubled American diocese. For example, Cardinal Carlo Maria Vigano had uncovered widespread corruption in the Vatican accounting department and wrote a series of letters to the pope pleading that he consider making high-level changes to stem the money laundering, nepotism, and embezzlement going on in the church. Soon after his initial complaints, he received notice of his impending transfer to Washington, D.C., three years before the end of his tenure. 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 wrote. He was transferred to Washington late last year.
Nuzzi, who has also published the documents on his blog, says that the book, which shot to No. 1 in sales in Italian stores, is not an anti-Catholic tome. “I’m not making any judgments either way,” he says. “There are no personal letters or information about private lives. These are all documents that the church should make public for the sake of transparency.”
As a journalist you often follow blind leads and meet with people who know little or nothing,” Nuzzi says. “But I knew right away that this was going to be the biggest thing I’d ever been involved with.”
The Vatican says the publication of the secret documents is criminal. Nuzzi says that he wishes his informers could take some credit for their bravery. But instead, they risk serious consequences if their identity is ever discovered. Anyway, Nuzzi says he never knew their real names. He says they came up with the code name “Maria” together because of its significance in the Church, referring to Catholicism teaching that Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus Christ.
“Maria, the unsuspected messenger became a joke between us,” he says. “There was often a touch of humor or irony to where and when the documents arrived.”
But the pope is not amused. He has appointed a trio of heavy-handed prelates led by Opus Dei leader Julian Herranz to stop the leaks—one way or another. “The latest publication of documents of the Holy See and private documents of the Holy Father can no longer be considered a questionable—and objectively defamatory—journalistic initiative, but clearly assumes the character of a criminal act,” said Father Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman. For Nuzzi, that just proves he did the right thing. “What was I going to do, sit here on all these documents?” he asks. “Don’t you think Catholics who give millions to the church deserve to know the truth?” Even when that truth is stranger than fiction.