VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican faces a widening scandal that in one short week has seen Pope Benedict’s butler arrested, the president of its bank unceremoniously dismissed and the publication of a new book alleging conspiracies among cardinals.
It was a poisonous Pentecost Sunday for the pope, who likely had the tumultuous events of the past week on his mind as he celebrated a mass in St Peter’s Basilica on the day regarded as the birthday of the Church.
On Saturday his personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, 46, was formally charged with stealing confidential papal documents in the scandal that has come to be known as “Vatileaks”. Some of the documents allege cronyism and corruption in contracts with Italian companies.
One prominent cardinal, illustrating the growing emotion of the debate in Vatican circles, wrote in an Italian newspaper that the pope had been betrayed just as Jesus was betrayed 2,000 years ago.
The scandal, which has been brewing for months, has hit the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Gabriele - now known in Vatican statements as “the defendant” - was until Wednesday night the quiet man who served the pope’s meals, helped him dress and held his umbrella on rainy days.
The pope made no reference during his two public appearances on Sunday to the scandal or the arrest, which aides said had “saddened and pained” him.
“I feel very sad for the pope. This whole thing is such a disservice to the Church,” Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus charity group who is also a member of the board of the Vatican bank, told Reuters.
The night before the Vatican announced an arrest as part of its investigation of the leaks, it was rocked by the sudden ouster of the president of its bank, formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR).
Anderson, among those who voted no-confidence in Italian Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, said in a telephone interview with Reuters that the president was sacked because of “a fundamental failure to perform his basic responsibilities”.
Anderson rejected accusations by Gotti Tedeschi that he had been ousted because he wanted the bank to be more transparent.
“Categorically, this action by the board had nothing to do with his promotion of transparency,” Anderson said. “In Fact, he was becoming an obstacle to greater transparency by his inability to work senior management,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the Vatican is still aiming to make the OECD’s “white list” of states with financial transparency and other Vatican sources have pointed to the president’s very public ouster as an example of the drive for transparency.
A memorandum of the meeting that ousted Gotti Tedeschi and obtained by Reuters said he had shown “progressively erratic personal behavior” and failed to defend the bank “in the face of inaccurate media reports”.
Gotti Tedeschi’s ouster was significant in internal Vatican politics because it was another blow to the prestige of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the pope’s right-hand man, who was instrumental in bringing the Italian in from Spain’s Banco Santander to run the IOR in 2009.
Earlier last week saw the publication of “His Holiness,” a new book by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who was first leaked some of the documents in January and aired them on a television show.
He says he was given the material by people loyal to the Church who wanted to expose corruption and that he did not pay anything for the documents.
After the events of last week, the atmosphere in the walled city-state was glum on Sunday. Vatican sources said they could not rule out more arrests, particularly if Gabriele named any accomplices.
The leaks scandal prompted one prominent Churchman, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan and himself once a candidate for the papacy, to appeal to Church leaders “to urgently win back the trust of the faithful”.
Martini, writing in an Italian newspaper, said the pope had been “betrayed” just as Jesus was betrayed 2,000 years ago, and that the Church would have to emerge from the latest scandal cleaner and stronger.
Still, few believed that Gabriele, a shy and private man, could have acted on his own and some said he may have been an unwitting pawn in a Vatican power struggle.
“Either he lost his mind or this is a trap,” a friend of Gabriele’s in the Vatican told the newspaper La Stampa.
“Whoever convinced him to do this is even more guilty because he manipulated a simple person.”
While news of Gabriele’s arrest has filled pages and pages of newspapers in Italy and beyond, the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has ignored the story.
Some say this may be because the paper itself has been an instrument in a power struggle involving reciprocal mud-slinging between allies and enemies of Cardinal Bertone.
“This is a strategy of tension, an orgy of vendettas and pre-emptive vendettas that has now spun out of the control of those who thought they could orchestrate it,” Church historian Alberto Melloni wrote in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
The leaked documents included letters by an archbishop who was transferred to Washington after blowing the whistle on what he saw as a web of corruption and cronyism, a memo that put a number of cardinals in a bad light, and documents alleging internal conflicts about the Vatican bank.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Ralph Boulton