The Vatican has issued a rare public statement forcefully denying any involvement in a scandal that prompted the resignation of a Catholic newspaper editor last year.
After two weeks of rumours and intrigue mostly in the Italian press claiming that a high ranking Vatican official was responsible for the forced resignation, a communiqué from the Vatican's head office insisted that the assertion had "no basis whatsoever in fact."
The intrigue, which Italy's newspapers latched on to despite a conspicuous lack of named sources, began last summer. Dino Boffo, the editor of Avvenire, a daily newspaper that Italy's Catholic bishops own, wrote some strident editorials criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for his liaisons with young women.
In retaliation, Il Giornale, a national daily that Berlusconi's media empire owns, accused Boffo of being an active homosexual and alleged that he had been fined for harassing the wife of a man he was interested in. The allegations caused a media storm and eventually led to Boffo's resignation.
Some time later, the editor of Il Giornale, Vittorio Feltri, admitted that his paper's allegations were based on false documents. But he claimed in an interview with another Italian newspaper last month that a high-ranking Vatican official had given him the documents.
"A personality of the church, trusted institutionally, contacted me and sent me a photocopy of the report," said Feltri, who refused to give a name, insisting it was someone "institutionally reliable" and beyond doubt.
The Italian press began to speculate who it could have been and settled on either Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, or the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Vatican newspaper and the Secretariat of State had a conspicuously different and low-key approach to Berlusconi compared with Boffo, as they were keen for the Holy See to maintain good relations with the Italian government.
But the Italian press stirred further intrigue, alleging that Vian and Bertone had hatched a Machiavellian plot to fell Boffo in order to attack his mentor, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a former head of Italy's Catholic bishops, and his successor, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco. The allegations supposedly fit, with some perceiving Vian and Bertone as liberals and Ruini and Bagnasco as conservatives.
Last week, it emerged that Pope Benedict XVI had been informed of the allegations and that Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, his private secretary, had prepared a report for the Pope on the matter. And today, the Vatican attempted to quash the rumors in a rare and very strongly worded statement of denial from Bertone's office.
"Since 23 January," the communiqué read, "an increasing number of news items and reconstructions have been appearing, especially in many Italian news media, concerning the events surrounding the resignation of the editor of the Italian Catholic daily 'Avvenire,' with the evident intention of demonstrating the involvement of the editor of the 'Osservatore Romano' in the affair, even going so far as to insinuate the responsibility of the Cardinal Secretary of State."
The statement said, "These news items and reconstructions have no basis whatsoever in fact," adding, "it is false that officers of the Vatican Gendarmerie or the editor of the 'Osservatore Romano' passed on the documents which lay behind the resignation of the editor of 'Avvenire' on 3 September last year. . . It is false that the editor of the 'Osservatore Romano' gave — or in any way transmitted or endorsed — information about these documents."
The Vatican, clearly shaken by the allegations, then stated: "It seems clear from the proliferation of the most incredible assertions and hypotheses — repeated by the media with truly remarkable consonance — that everything rests on unfounded convictions, with the intention of gratuitously and calumniously attributing to the editor of 'Osservatore Romano' an unmotivated, unreasonable and malicious action. This is giving rise to a defamatory campaign against the Holy See, which even involves the Roman Pontiff."
The communiqué ended by stating that the pontiff has been "kept constantly informed" and that he "deplores these unjust and injurious attacks." It added that the Pope "renews his complete faith in his collaborators, and prays that those who truly have the good of the Church to heart may work with all means to ensure that truth and justice triumph."
In a separate statement, Bagnasco said he welcomed the communiqué and that he shared the will to ensure the good of the church is not compromised by "news and reconstructions that have given rise to a smear campaign against the Holy See."
The Vatican has less intrigue going on within its walls than many might think, although like any other institution, it's not without its own internal machinations and politics.
Most of this scandal, however, has more to do with a tendency in the Italian press to dwell on conspiracy theories, as well as a political culture that would make Machiavelli proud.
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