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VatiLeaks Puts the Pope in Publicity Hell

Another week, another set of Vatican leaks. Barbie Latza Nadeau on how the Holy See’s spinmeister is coping with new allegations.

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It’s been more than three weeks since the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested for allegedly stealing secret documents from the papal desk, and the details spilling from Vatican City are as murky as smoke from burning incense.

The heavily filtered “facts” of Gabriele’s arrest are channeled from the hallowed Holy See through sporadic press briefings held by Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s Jesuit spokesman, who sits at an expansive high table above reporters in the blue velvet press room inside the Holy See Press Center. The briefings often contain sarcastic micro-sermons on the interpretation of truth among the Vatican press corps, and Father Lombardi generally begins the Q&A sessions by wielding press clippings of what he considers the biggest offenses when it comes to accurate reporting. “There is a way of doing journalism that does not reflect the reality of the actual situation,” he lectured last week. “I am constantly amazed.”

In many ways, Lombardi’s job is more about battling rumors than revealing actual information. He often answers questions with condescending half-laughs and never allows himself to be pushed into a corner. When the going gets tough, he simply ends the briefing. And so it was last week when the latest gossip swirling around the VatiLeaks intrigue was swatted away like a pesky Roman tiger mosquito.

On Thursday, the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica published a “scoop.” The piece apparently never made it to the online version of the paper, but in the print edition the paper announced that the Vatican’s chief information technology guru had disappeared without a trace, taking with him the passwords, codes, and presumably secrets from the Vatican’s intranet servers. The nameless Vatican employee was, curiously, said to be an ex-hacker who had broken the Vatican firewall once before and then redeemed himself to land a trusted position. La Repubblica’s intrepid—or possibly creative—reporters said he had created an “unbreakable” network to protect the Vatican network and that only he knew how to open it, thus giving the impression that the Vatican was once again at risk of a serious security breach. No sources were cited. Lombardi adamantly denied that anyone had disappeared from the Vatican’s employee roster, and most assuredly not any ex-hacking computer expert. The La Repubblica report, he said, was “completely unfounded.”

The supposedly groundless scoop about the missing hacker highlighted a week of PR problems for the Vatican bank. Former president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, who was let go in late May, has reportedly been spilling once-confidential information to prosecutors who are investigating alleged improprieties in the Vatican bank dealings with external Italian companies. He had compiled a secret dossier as early as last January in which he detailed many of the Vatican bank’s allegedly creative accounting procedures. One file in his dossier leaked to the press contained vital information about Vatican bank account No. 1365 with JPMorgan that the New York–based financial firm closed down last year because of suspicious behavior. JPMorgan had requested documentation to prove the account was not being used for money laundering.

According to Gotti Tedeschi’s dossier, he had asked Vatican bank technicians and advisers for help clearing up what he said he assumed was a misunderstanding. Instead, according to the leaked documents printed in the Italian press, “the board of the bank stopped him” from investigating further, which then “created a conflict” among the board over the Vatican’s anti–money laundering regulations, which he says were merely “on paper and not in practice.” All of which, he says, is why the bank fired him.

To counter the flow of negative information, the Vatican has been working hard to discredit Gotti Tedeschi as inept and potentially certifiable. In another letter leaked to the press, which the Vatican denies leaking, a noted psychoanalyst who had been brought in by the Vatican bank directors to “evaluate stress levels” had written a letter to the Vatican bank’s general director, Paolo Cipriani, describing Gotti Tedeschi’s behavior at the company Christmas party last year as “consistent with a pathological disorder.” The Vatican said it regretted the leaking of the psychological evaluation, but Lombardi remained adamant that it wasn’t their doing. Why anyone else would want to discredit Gotti Tedeschi remains yet another unanswered question on a list of many.

Meanwhile, the papal butler remains under investigation, reportedly cooperating with the Vatican authorities who have interrogated him in the presence of his lawyers. Lombardi says he now faces up to eight years in prison for stealing the papal papers. His trial may be held this summer, but undoubtedly will be closed to the press. Information will come at Lombardi’s discretion.

Lombardi says no others have been implicated in the crime and that there is “ample evidence” to convict the butler, assuring reporters that he will keep them abreast of the situation as events dictate. But even with the butler locked away, a steady stream of documents has been finding its way to the front pages of the Italian papers.

“Don’t you have something more interesting to write about?” asked Lombardi at a recent briefing. That, of course, will ultimately be up to him.