The National Security Agency has denied targeting the telephones of the Pope and senior Vatican officials, but if they had, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time the Vatican had been a target of surveillance and espionage.
The fact that the Vatican officials debug and jam mobile phones in the Sistine Chapel during a conclave points to a precedent of the Vatican being especially wary of spying — an awareness that dates back centuries.
The Holy See has long been considered an ideal “listening post,” drawing on a vast network of priests, missionaries, religious, diplomats, and laity.
And as recently as 2010, Benedict XVI’s calls were intercepted by the Italian police who admitted to tapping his telephone as part of their investigation into Guido Bertolaso, Italy’s civil protection chief, then accused of corruption.
Benedict XVI was not accused of any wrongdoing; he had simply made four telephone calls to Bertolaso, who had led rescue efforts after a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009.
Vatican officials were said at the time to be furious about the intercepts.
More recently, the Vatican itself carried out its own telephone surveillance. During the 2012 investigation into the leaking of confidential documents from the papal household, the Vatican admitted to authorizing “some intercepts and checks” that involved the wiretapping of "two or three" telephone lines.
But none of these incidents comes close to the extent of phone tapping and spying on the Vatican that went on in the 20th century.
In his book, "Spies in the Vatican — The Soviet Union’s War Against the Catholic Church," author John Koehler reveals how, for years during the Cold War, Soviet leaders enjoyed regular access to the inner deliberations of Vatican leaders, thanks to the work of several spy networks.
Communist intelligence chiefs would exploit the Vatican's role as a forum for policy discussions, reporting back sensitive diplomatic strategies laid bare at the Holy See by American and European leaders.
Koehler says the KGB, working through the intelligence services of Eastern bloc nations, relied heavily upon “bugs” planted in key Vatican offices. He recounts one particularly odious incident when a listening device was placed in a ceramic statute of the Virgin Mary and given to Cardinal Agostino Caseroli, the Pope’s deputy, by his treacherous uncle. Another transmitter was hidden in an armoire in the cardinal’s dining room.
How much involved bugs, spies within the Vatican or phone tapping is not clear, but in 1970 the KGB had full access to a meeting between U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the then Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean Villot. Koehler says Leonid Brezhnev would later receive a word-for-word account of the meeting that covered a range of sensitive issues.
During the Second World War, the Vatican was viewed by the allied powers to be “un covo di spie” — a nest of spies — partly because of the large number of Italian-born officials thought to have sympathies with Mussolini’s fascist regime, but also because of foreign diplomats who had sought refuge in the Vatican.
Owen Chadwick, in his book "Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War," writes that no one, whether papal or diplomatic, could do anything without the Italian government knowing. The Vatican police, he says, largely worked for the fascists, and the Italian state tapped Vatican phones and opened letters and telegrams destined for the Holy See (the Vatican also tapped telephones in an attempt at counter-espionage).
The Vatican vigorously protested the interceptions at least five times, Chadwick says, mainly taking issue with tampered mail. Italy’s ministry of the interior, however, “was determined not to give way.”
Meanwhile, the Gestapo had an agent inside the secretariat of state as early as 1939-40. “The Pope was aware of his existence,” Chadwick writes, adding that senior Curial officials also knew of his assigned tasks (primarily to monitor the behavior of the German bishops and their correspondence) and so he was “largely ineffective.”
Another spy was Virgilio Scattolini. Dismissed as a journalist with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, in 1939, he started selling information to the Germans in 1941. The material, Chadwick writes, “was sometimes quite lurid, and sometimes had a slim foundation in Vatican gossip.”
Other infiltrators were sought out on the orders of the head of the German Sicherheitsdienst, Reinhard Heydrich, who wanted to place trustworthy informers into the Vatican system and among German theology students studying in Rome.
Spying was also a feature of World War I. A serious breach occurred when a Bavarian Monsignor, Rudolph Gerlach, “chamberlain and confident” to Pope Benedict XV, was discovered to be a spy for the Germans. But Benedict XV was merciful to his long-serving aid, and personally arranged his safe passage to Switzerland in 1917. His fate after his return, however, is unknown.
A Vatican counter-espionage force would have helped throughout the 20th century, but this was disbanded after 1870 when the Vatican was forced to give up the papal states. Thereafter, it relied instead on clergy to solve problems of confidential communications and information gathering.
The Vatican aside, spying on Popes is nothing new even in recent times. Blessed John Paul II was continually monitored by the Communists, both before and after his election. And when he was a cardinal, Benedict XVI was the focus of surveillance by the East German Stasi.
The Vatican is, therefore, no stranger to espionage. Were the allegations of NSA phone tapping true, the U.S. would have joined a list of rogue nations who have been historically hostile to the Catholic Church, something the Obama administration would no doubt have wished to avoid.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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