'VatiLeaks' scandal could be defining moment for Pope Benedict

No cardinal is under suspicion of being the mastermind behind the "Vatileaks" affair which is rocking Rome, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Pope's spokesman, told journalists in the Vatican Press Office shortly after noon on May 28. Nor has the Pope constituted a special team of lay investigators, led by a woman, to look into the case and report back directly to him, Lombardi said.  Both rumors were reported in the Italian press. A headline in one paper said "Cardinals Now Under Suspicion."

Such headlines are simply without any basis in reality, Lomabardi told the assembled journalists. He asked all of the reporters present to show restraint and professionality in reporting this dramatic and developing story. Lombardi then read a declaration from one of the two lawyers representing the Pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, 46, who is charged with stealing and disseminating secret Vatican documents.  The lawyer, Carlo Fusco, said that Gabriele is now cooperating with Vatican investigators, who are questioning him. Fusco said his client is "very serene and calm," despite the whirlwind of speculation surrounding his arrest. And he confirmed that Gabriele has told the Vatican judge investigating the case that he would "respond to all the questions and will collaborate with investigators to ascertain the truth."

There has been no information about what Gabriele is telling his questioners. We do not know if he has implicated others in the theft of the documents, or whether he has offered some explanation, or defense, of his actions. All we know for sure is that a large number of very private documents, many evidently from the papal apartments -- including some evidently from the Pope's own desk -- seem to have been photocopied and leaked to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi.

Nuzzi's latest book, His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, appeared only in mid-May. It contains images and transcripts of dozens of authentic documents that paint a picture of chaos and corruption inside the Roma Curia. The Vatican warned of legal action against Nuzzi already in January after he broadcast letters from a top Vatican administrator to the Pope in which the administrator begged not to be transferred for having exposed alleged corruption that cost the Holy See millions of euros in higher contract prices. The prelate, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, is now the Vatican's ambassador to the United States.

Nuzzi is also the author of Vatican SpA, a 2009 volume laying out shady dealings of the Vatican bank based on authentic documents left in the estate of a deceased Vatican official, Monsignor Renato Dardozzi, whose family turned the documents over to Nuzzi after Dardozzi died in 2003.

Much of the leaked documentation in the new book concerns issues within Italy: a 2009 scandal over the ex-editor of the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference; a secret dinner between Benedict and Italy's president; and a 2011 letter from Italy's pre-eminent talk show host, Bruno Vespa, to the Pope enclosing a check for (EURO)10,000 for the Pope's charity work – and asking for a private audience with the Pope in exchange.

But there are international leaks as well, including diplomatic cables from Vatican embassies from Jerusalem to Cameroon. Some concern the conclusions of the Pope's delegate for the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order in a memo to the Pope last fall, Cardinal Velasio de Paolis. (He warned that the financial situation of the order, beset by a scandal involving its founder, "while not grave, is serious and pressing.")

Nuzzi opens his book with a chapter explaining how he obtained the documents. In these pages, it seems clear that he dealt with more than one person. He describes a meeting with two men, then with the two and a third, who may have been Paolo Gabriele. Unless these passages are entirely fabricated, it seems certain that there were at least two others who collaborated with the Pope's butler in delivering these documents.

The confusion and doubt caused by these leaks is harmful to the Church's image, of course. But this crisis could conceivably offer Pope Benedict an opportunity: he could use the moment to carry out a thorough house-cleaning.  In this sense, the scandal surrounding the leak of these documents could be transformed into an opportunity for Benedict to purify the Church. Handled in this way, the leaks scandal could become the most important moment, the defining moment, of this pontificate. 

Robert Moynihan PhD is the editor of InsideTheVatican, from where this article is adapted.

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