Extreme Unction

In Italy’s Most Famous Terror Case Will The Confessor Confess?

Pope Francis has paved the way for the priest who heard Aldo Moro’s last confession to give shed light on one of Italy’s greatest crimes. But will he?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

ROME — Sometime between March 16 and May 9, 1978, Antonio Mennini, a young priest known then as Don Antonello, allegedly was invited into the secret hideaway where the Red Brigades terrorist group kept Italy’s former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who had been kidnapped amid a spray of bullets that killed his five bodyguards.

The priest, who tended the church near the prime minister’s private home, was a confidante of the leader and was apparently called to hear Moro’s final confession before he was killed. He is said to have given Moro the sacrament of extreme unction, a sort of preemptive last rites performed on those in imminent danger of dying. Mennini went on to become a Vatican ambassador, acting as papal nuncio to Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Great Britain, where he has been since 2010.

Because of his diplomatic status and clergy-confessor confidentiality, Mennini has been able to slalom a very fine line between truth and obscurity when describing what he knows, or does not know, about the Moro murder, which is still considered an open case in Italy.

Now, Mennini may finally be free to shed light on those final moments during one of Italy’s darkest hours.

Pope Francis, in an effort to achieve greater transparency for all of the scandals the Vatican is seen to be involved with, has prompted the lifting of diplomatic immunity for Mennini by the Vatican’s Secretary of State. The ambassador is expected to give testimony in Rome on Monday in front of Giuseppe Fioroni, who is heading a special commission that began reinvestigating Moro’s death in October of last year.

Moro, who was prime minister five times, was kidnapped and eventually shot 11 times in the chest near the American Studies Center in Rome, a venue which many believe could have been a nod to his alleged involvement with the American CIA. Mennini was questioned in 1978 and 1979 and again in the mid-1980s, during which time he denied knowing anything about the case, and, according to court documents, would not admit whether he actually heard Moro’s final confession or not. This time could be different and Mennini could feel free to reveal what really happened.

For reasons no one has ever completely understood, no one fought very hard to get Moro released from the terrorists, which has made the story a favorite of conspiracy theorists who say everyone from the KGB to the CIA was involved.

Even his kidnapper, Mario Moretti, remains perplexed that no one tried to save the prime minister. In his prison memoir, Moretti, who is serving a life sentence for his role in the kidnapping and murder, wrote, “Nobody in the world should ever have to feel as alone as he did. Here was a man who knew the most powerful people on earth; the men in the government were his men, the minister of interior his friend, and not a single one of them lifted a finger to help him, or made the slightest move to step forward from the pack.”

Mennini’s alleged involvement in Moro’s final days became a focal point in the case when Italian politician Francesco Cossiga, who served as a leader in Moro’s Christian Democratic Party and eventually became president of the republic, made a deathbed confession in 2010, revealing Mennini had “reached Moro in the [terrorist] den and none of us found about it” and then, Cossiga said of the priest, “he got away” without anyone finding out what really happened.

His involvement, according to Cossiga and countless retellings of the case, was thanks to wiretapped phone conversations between various operatives that pointed to Mennini being a sort of liaison between good and evil. It was then reported that Mennini also allegedly delivered a heart-wrenching letter by Moro to his wife, in which he wrote, “They have told me that they are going to kill me in a little while. I kiss you for the last time.”

The move by the Church under Francis to essentially put one of its men in the hot seat has raised eyebrows in Rome, where confessors are assumed to have to take the secrets of those who confess to the grave. And while Mennini will be able to refuse to testify about what Moro told him during that last confession, he could face contempt of court if he refuses to tell investigators about the circumstances during that confession now that his immunity has been lifted. It will be the first time a priest in a high-profile case has been put to such a test in Italy.

The implications are far-reaching. Much like lawyer-client privilege, priests are protected in many countries by a clergy confidentiality agreement that keeps them immune from testifying about what they hear in the confessional. If Mennini is pushed to divulge potentially incriminating details, it could lead to other priests being held similarly accountable.

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There are countless organized crime cases in Italy in which parish priests hold the secrets that could solve the cases. In many, devout organized crime kingpins justify their crimes through the act of confession, which has been a bone of contention with Francis, who instead says that mobsters cannot hide behind the Church and should instead be excommunicated. Francis, who visits Naples and Scampia, the heart of the Camorra gangland on March 21, is expected to make the Church’s stance on organized crime a focal point of his trip.

Moro investigator Fioroni told reporters in Rome when he announced that Mennini will be testifying that he will not be asking the priest to betray any clerical vows. “Many of the points that will be addressed include his role in those days, his contacts, the huge commitment of [Pope] Paul VI to start negotiations to return Moro alive, and why these attempts did not go ahead,” Fioroni said. “With [Francis], now Mennini is free to talk.”

Mennini is no stranger to controversy. His father, Luigi Mennini, was vice president of the Vatican Bank, known as the Institite for Religious works, or IOR, during the time when the bank was embroiled in one of its own seriously dark and sinister scandals, during which American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was accused of financial corruption in a twisted affair that eventually led to the death of Roberto Calvi, found hanging from under Blackfriars Bridge in London.

Whether Father Mennini’s testimony amounts to a confession or not, it has already sent the message that under Francis, secrets are no longer the status quo.