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Pope Benedict XVI and butler Paolo Gabriele arrive to a weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square Oct. 10, 2006, at the Vatican. / AFP/Getty Images
This story was originally published in the Washington Post Feb. 16.
VATICAN CITY Guests at the going-away party for Carlo Maria Vigano couldn't understand why the archbishop looked so forlorn. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Vigano ambassador to the United States, a plum post where he would settle into a stately mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, across the street from the vice president's residence.
"He went through the ordeal making it very clear he was unhappy with it," said one former ambassador to the Vatican, who attended the Vatican Gardens ceremony in the late summer of 2011. "And we just couldn't figure out, us outsiders and non-Italians, what was going on."
There was no such confusion within Vatican walls. Benedict had installed Vigano to enact a series of reforms within the Vatican. But some of Rome's highest-ranking cardinals undercut the efforts and hastened Vigano's exile to the United States.
Vigano's plight and other unflattering machinations would soon become public in an unprecedented leak of the pontiff's personal correspondence. Much of the media -- and the Vatican -- focused on the source of the shocking security breach. Largely lost were the revelations contained in the letters themselves -- tales of rivalry and betrayal, and allegations of corruption and systemic dysfunction that infused the inner workings of the Holy See and the eight-year papacy of Benedict XVI. Last week, he announced that he will become the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
The next pope may bring with him an invigorating connection to the Southern Hemisphere, a media magnetism or better leadership skills than the shy and cerebral Benedict. But whoever he may be, the 266th pope will inherit a gerontocracy obsessed with turf and Italian politics, uninterested in basic management practices and hostile to reforms.
VatiLeaks, as the scandal came to be known, dragged the fusty institution into the wild WikiLeaks era. It exposed the church bureaucracy's entrenched opposition to Benedict's fledgling effort to carve out a legacy as a reformer against the backdrop of a global child sex abuse scandal and the continued dwindling of his flock.
It showed how Benedict, a weak manager who may most be remembered for the way in which he left office, was no match for a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency and preferred a damage-control campaign that diverted attention from the institution's fundamental problems. Interviews in Rome with dozens of church officials, Vatican insiders and foreign government officials close to the church, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, mapped out that hermetic universe.
"We can reveal the face of the church and how this face is, at times, disfigured," Benedict said in his final homily on Ash Wednesday. "I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church." He called for his ministry to overcome "individualism" and "rivalry," saying they were only for those "who have distanced themselves from the faith."
A radical transformation of the culture is unlikely. "We're talking about people who have given their life to this institution, but at the same time the institution has become their life," said one senior Vatican official. "Unlike parish priests, who have the personal rewards that come with everyday contact, their lot is not as human. It's bureaucratic, but it becomes all-consuming."
The entire debacle, he said, "wasn't a communications crisis. It was a management crisis."
The leak came from within the pope's inner sanctum. On most mornings, the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, left his apartment, just inside the Vatican walls, before 7 a.m. He walked past the plumed Swiss Guards and into the Apostolic Palace, where he worked in the third-floor papal apartments. His black gelled hair, dark suits and fleshy cheeks became so familiar around the Vatican Gardens that clerics affectionately called him Paoletto.
"I was the layman closest to the Holy Father," Gabriele would later say. "There to respond to his immediate needs."
The official duties for the married father of three included laying out Benedict's white vestments and red shoes, serving his decaf coffee and riding with the pontiff in the popemobile. Unofficial chores included absconding with copies of the pope's personal correspondence, including letters from Vigano, whose grievances Gabriele found especially compelling.
The butler read letters fleshing out how Vigano, an ambitious enforcer of Benedict's good government reforms, had earned powerful enemies. In early 2011, a series of hostile anonymous articles attacking Vigano began appearing in the Italian media. Under duress, Vigano appealed to the pope's powerful second in command, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone was not sympathetic and instead echoed the articles' complaints about his rough management style and removed Vigano from his post.
This set in motion a blizzard of letters that passed through the office Gabriele shared with the pope's personal secretary. In one missive, Vigano wrote to Bertone accusing him of getting in the way of the pope's reform mission; he also charged Bertone with breaking his promise to elevate him to cardinal. Vigano sent a copy of this letter to the pope. In a separate letter to the pontiff, Vigano dropped the Vatican's "C word": corruption.
"My transfer right now," he wrote, "would provoke much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments."
In another, he described more "situations of corruption" in which the same firms habitually won contracts at almost "double the cost" charged outside the Vatican. Vigano cited savings from cutting the amount spent on the annual Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square from 550,000 euros in 2009 to 300,000 euros in 2010.
Vigano's efforts failed, and he was soon dispatched to Washington. Bertone and Vigano declined to comment.
"In other circumstances, such an appointment would be a reason for joy and a sign of great esteem and trust in my regard, but in the present context, it will be perceived by all as a verdict of condemnation of my work, and therefore as a punishment," Vigano wrote to the pope on July 7, 2011. He suggested that "the Holy Father has certainly been kept in the dark."