In-depth briefing

The Catholic Church's Vatileaks scandal: A guide

A series of embarrassing leaks has exposed conspiracies, corruption, backstabbing, and bitter rivalries within the Catholic Church's hierarchy

What is the scandal about?
A steady stream of leaked documents since the beginning of the year has revealed the Holy See to be an unholy nest of conspiracies, backstabbing, and ambition. "Vatileaks," as the scandal has been dubbed, has smashed the Vatican's code of silence to reveal a long-standing tradition of bitter rivalries and corruption. The leaks point to at least three shadowy, interlocking plots: an anonymous campaign to undermine Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state and Pope Benedict XVI's top deputy; a struggle over the future of the Vatican bank; and an effort by Italian cardinals to gain more influence over the choice of Benedict's successor. "This is a power struggle," said Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham. "People are leaking information to the press to discredit one person or another."

Who is doing the leaking?
The sole official suspect is the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, 46, who was arrested in May after he was found with stolen papal documents; held for months in a small cell at the Vatican, he was granted house arrest last week. His lawyer insists Gabriele acted alone, but the leaks have continued since his detention. The real culprits are suspected to be disgruntled prelates inside the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, who view Bertone as an obstacle to church reform. The 77-year-old cardinal, a longtime ally of the current pope, has consolidated his power by promoting former associates from his native region of Piedmont to influential posts; they now include the governor of the Vatican City State, the head of the Vatican treasury, and the Holy See's top bank regulator. There are growing rumors that the health of the 85-year-old Benedict is failing, feeding suspicion that Bertone's ultimate goal is to gain control over the next papal conclave — the meeting of the College of Cardinals that selects the pope.

What role does money play?
Charges of financial impropriety figure prominently in the scandal. Though Catholic priests take a vow of poverty, the Vatican presides over a closely held $6 billion empire, including the troubled Vatican bank, known as the Institute for Works of Religion, or IOR. Some of the first leaks early this year were confidential letters from an archbishop to Pope Benedict warning of "corruption and abuse of power" in Vatican finances, including millions of dollars in padded contracts. Bertone ordered the archbishop silenced and removed from his post, but the day after the pope's butler was arrested, the IOR's president — appointed in 2009 to clean it up after decades of allegations of money-laundering and infiltration by the Mafia and Italian Freemasons — was summarily fired amid charges of negligence. The bank's latest efforts at transparency have so far failed to meet the expectations of European banking officials, who last month gave it failing marks in seven critical areas, including measures to combat the financing of terrorism.

How has the Vatican reacted?
Angrily and defensively. Critics say the Holy See has been far more vigorous in investigating the leaks than the patterns of corruption and influence-peddling they allege. Bertone accused journalists of "pretending to be Dan Brown," author of The Da Vinci Code, and decried "a will to create division that comes from the devil." But he also hired Fox News' Rome correspondent, Greg Burke, as a "senior communications adviser" to handle damage control.

What damage has been done?
The Vatican has been left looking like a den of snakes. One leaked memo charged the ousted Vatican bank president with "psychopathological dysfunction"; other documents allege that Bertone conspired to force the editor of a Catholic newspaper to resign by falsely accusing him of a homosexual affair. Among the tawdry financial misdeeds detailed was the overpayment of $350,000 for a Nativity crèche. The Italian media also revealed that a mafioso was buried in a basilica among popes and cardinals after his widow made a substantial donation to the church. There were even details of Bertone's unseemly friendship with disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Has the pope's reputation been harmed?
The revelations have made it clear that Benedict, who was once expected to bring German efficiency to his role, is not actively managing the Vatican. "He's a solitary scholar and he's not interested in the bureaucracy," said Chester Gillis, a theology professor at Georgetown University. Critics say Benedict has been ill served by Bertone, whom they blame for the pope's 2006 speech suggesting Islam is inherently violent, and for lifting the excommunication of a renegade bishop who denies the Holocaust. The Vatileaks scandal — coming on the heels of the sex-abuse scandal, which many critics say Benedict handled defensively and poorly — is further evidence of "a tin-ear papacy," said Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University. "This all seems to be a power game that matters only to the power players. It seems to be a church hierarchy further distancing itself from the people in the pews."

A history of secrets
The Vatileaks scandal is just the latest chapter in a long history of Vatican intrigue. In 1958, Pope Pius XII's doctor snapped pictures of the prelate on his deathbed and tried to sell them to gossip magazines; in 1982, Roberto Calvi, known as "God's Banker" for his close ties to the Vatican, was found hanging from London's Blackfriars Bridge, a murder that remains unsolved. But even those lurid episodes pale before the transgressions of Renaissance popes, who bribed their way into office, kept mistresses, and appointed relatives to high church positions. Pope Sixtus IV built the Sistine Chapel, but appointed six of his nephews cardinals. One of them, Julius II, patron to Michelangelo and Raphael, raised a fortune by selling indulgences — or exemptions from eternal punishment for sinners. The practice so shocked Martin Luther that he broke with Rome and launched the Protestant Reformation.


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