Guests at the going-away party for Carlo Maria Viganò couldn’t understand why the archbishop looked so forlorn. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Viganò 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 Viganò to enact a series of reforms within the Vatican. But some of Rome’s highest-ranking cardinals undercut the efforts and hastened Viganò’s exile to the United States.
Viganò’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 Viganò, whose grievances Gabriele found especially compelling.
The butler read letters fleshing out how Viganò, an ambitious enforcer of Benedict’s good government reforms, had earned powerful enemies. In early 2011, a series of hostile anonymous articles attacking Viganò began appearing in the Italian media. Under duress, Viganò 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 Viganò 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, Viganò 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. Viganò sent a copy of this letter to the pope. In a separate letter to the pontiff, Viganò 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. Viganò 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.
Viganò’s efforts failed, and he was soon dispatched to Washington. Bertone and Viganò 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,” Viganò wrote to the pope on July 7, 2011. He suggested that “the Holy Father has certainly been kept in the dark.”
The butler agreed and sought an unorthodox way to get the pope’s attention. Through intermediaries, Gabriele reached out to Gianluigi Nuzzi, an Italian investigative reporter. In clandestine coffee bar meetings, anonymous associates of Gabriele vetted Nuzzi, the journalist later wrote, and drove him around in circles to shake loose potential followers. When Nuzzi jumped through sufficient hoops, he met Gabriele in an empty apartment near the Vatican furnished with only a plastic chair. The two established secret Thursday meetings, and Gabriele left letters in drop boxes; Nuzzi sewed a computer thumb drive into his necktie. One day, the butler showed up to the rendezvous empty-handed, only to reveal 13 pages of documents taped to his back, under his jacket. Nuzzi, who referred to his secret source as “Maria,” used the material to write “His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI,” a blockbuster book published last year.
As the media hunted for moles, or “crows” as they are known in Italian, Gabriele’s office mate, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein — a former ski instructor and papal confidant known as Gorgeous George — cracked the case. Vatican gendarmes found 82 boxes of documents in the butler’s apartment and arrested him. He was tried, convicted and jailed for several months before the pope personally pardoned him.
“Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church, I finally reached a point of degeneration, a point of no return, and could no longer control myself,” Gabriele explained to Vatican investigators. A shock, “perhaps through the media,” Gabriele continued, could “bring the church back on the right track.”
If the intention of the leaks was to force the ouster of Tarcisio Bertone — the secretary of state blamed for exiling Viganò and undercutting reforms — the effort failed.
While Benedict was the public face of the universal church, Bertone, for now, remains the private power broker who runs the Vatican on a daily basis. In 2006, Benedict appointed Bertone, his longtime doctrinal sidekick, to secretary of state — the second-most-powerful position in the Vatican. An amiable, soccer aficionado who shares the pope’s passion for cats, Bertone, 78, had little international experience. This prompted concern among the church’s elite diplomatic corps, which interpreted his appointment as a threat to the traditional Vatican career track. Bertone bore out their fears, essentially doing away with papal audiences for returning ambassadors. He ensured that many of the newly elevated cardinals were Italian loyalists, and he adopted a wide-ranging travel schedule that many considered an overreach.
Angelo Sodano, John Paul II’s secretary of state and Bertone’s predecessor, has not hidden his disregard. “It was quite visible,” said a former ambassador to the Vatican. “Sodano was a real insider, and you could tell that he thought Bertone was a real outsider and that he had no legitimacy in that position.”
But Bertone worked diligently to consolidate power. His allies control the church’s main financial institutions, prompting one official to write in a leaked document that traditional checks and balances had been ignored. “They say that our principal point of reference is the Secretary of State,” the letter read, “yet in many cases he’s precisely the problem.” Bertone’s position also meant he presided over the Vatican Bank, a post he appeared to use to impede Benedict’s financial reforms.
Benedict, for example, had issued a decree for the Vatican to adopt international money-laundering norms to combat the financing of terrorism. This initiative would allow outside auditors to examine the Vatican’s financial books. For an institution historically allergic to scrutiny, this constituted a revolution. He subsequently created a Vatican watchdog to oversee a whole swath of financial activities, from the Vatican Bank to the Vatican pharmacy and supermarket. But the leaked documents depicted Bertone’s efforts to defang Benedict’s watchdog and to keep power for himself.
“Bertone wanted to have a monopoly on relations with Italy,” an Italian official with close ties to the Vatican said.
But there is a pervasive view among some of the Vatican’s top cardinals that, despite the breadth of Bertone’s involvement in church affairs, he is out of his depth. A confidant of many cardinals said that Bertone has personally acknowledged his limitations. According to the insider, many of the Vatican’s highest-ranking prelates have reported that Bertone had tendered his resignation but was turned down by the pope. Few of them foresaw that Benedict would be the first to leave.
The next pope will inherit a government with a rather Byzantine approach to cleaning house, a place where demotions are peddled as promotions. Like the U.S.-bound Carlo Maria Viganò, many insiders believed the butler’s supervisor, James Michael Harvey, would be shunted aside in royal fashion.
One morning last November, Harvey stepped inside a curtained-off nook of St. Peter’s Basilica to pray at the tomb of John Paul II. For nearly 15 years, Harvey, a tall and gaunt Wisconsin native and comparatively youthful at 63, enjoyed close proximity to John Paul II and then Benedict as head of the papal household. On this day, he would join a handful of other prelates in kneeling down before Benedict, who would bestow birettas upon their heads and elevate them to the exclusive college of cardinals. As horns blasted from high above the basilica’s bronze doors, Harvey, clad in scarlet, led a small and internationally diverse procession down the nave. Lebanese and Nigerian flags waved in the packed pews. A roar went up as Benedict appeared in a gold stole, coasting over the buffed marble on a rolling platform.
With the exception of Gabriele, the butler, then locked up in a Vatican jail, all the major players in the leak drama attended. The gendarmes who had raided Gabriele’s top-floor apartment patrolled the floor in blue uniforms with flat-topped caps. Cardinal Bertone prayed in the front row. Among the 97 cardinals illuminated in a shaft of white light behind Bertone, potential “crows” perched.
Benedict appointed Harvey to a new job as titular cardinal priest of the St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica. It seemed like the honor of a lifetime, but for Vatican insiders and officials, the move amounted to an exquisite eviction. As the head of the papal household, Harvey had overseen Gabriele, and his new assignment seemed a classic example of promoveatur ut amoveatur — promote to remove. (Benedict later banished his former butler to a silence-encouraging sinecure at a hospital adjoining Harvey’s church.)
After the ceremony, Vatican officials charged with running the church shrugged off the scandal.
“They are little things, pebbles in the shoe that hurt so much and seem to prevent you from going forward,” said Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, who supervised Viganò during the height of VatiLeaks. “If one looks at the act of betrayal, it is in itself a grave act, even more so because it is near the apex of the church. But what does this tell us? It tells us only about the fragility of a person or of some people.”
A few hours after the ceremony, the Vatican offered the public a rare chance to enter the Apostolic Palace, where the pope lives and Gabriele had worked as butler. Inside the palace, Harvey accepted congratulations at the end of the barrel-vaulted Sala Regia.
“We all feel very hurt for him and for what was done,” he said of the butler’s leak. “That’s the common sentiment of all us here, because it was a hard thing to accept. But it’s a difficult thing for the whole church.”
The Vatican’s reaction to the leak scandal was not to address its inner flaws but to burnish its outer image.
Enter Twitter and Fox News.
Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter’s liaison to religious institutions, wrote the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See looking for a Vatican contact. Soon after, she and Paul Tighe, the No. 2 official at the church’s social communication department, started talking about the possibilities of a Twitter account for the pope. They racked their brains for the perfect handle, but the Vatican’s main concern, Diaz-Ortiz said, was: “ ‘Is there any chance this account is going to get hacked?’ ”
At about the same time, the Vatican hired away a Fox News reporter. In June, Bertone’s office rang Gregory Burke, a veteran correspondent in Rome and member of Opus Dei, a conservative and influential Catholic lay organization. They wanted him to bring a “common-sense journalistic view of how things are going to play out” to the church, Burke said, adding that they needed someone to “help craft the message.”
Burke, well-liked and respected by reporters, doesn’t look like a Vatican operative. On a rainy afternoon, he showed up late at a restaurant near the Pantheon in a trench coat, swinging a long umbrella. With his thicket of auburn hair and ruddy complexion, he looks more corn- than cannelloni-fed.
“I’m within the 15-minute Roman grace period,” he said in Italian. Burke’s approach to media, like his Italian, bears a strong American accent. “I would love to bring some Roger Ailes into this job,” he said. “The difference is Roger Ailes has a lot of power, and I have very little.”
Since joining the Vatican, Burke has sought to make the Vatican media operation less reactive. He said there remains within the Vatican a view that the church will survive another 2,000 years regardless of scandals, and while that might be true, “you can do a lot of harm in the meantime.” He organized a field trip for reporters to the Vatican Bank, housed in a round 15th-century fortress that sits below the Apostolic Palace like a footstool. He has proposed embedding a virtual tour of the bank on the Vatican Web site. “From a normal press point of view, it’s not thinking outside the box,” he acknowledged.
Burke and company developed a two-pronged damage-control strategy to confront the leak scandal: heap blame on the butler as a simpleton suffering delusions of grandeur and use the Vatican trial that convicted the butler as evidence of the church’s commitment to transparency.
“I don’t think we got enough credit for what we’ve done,” Burke said. “It might not have been perfect. But 10 years ago, would there have been an open trial?”
The Vatican pointed back to the butler’s day in court and the pool of eight reporters taking notes as exhibit A for openness. “There was a sense of great responsibility to guarantee the transparency,” said head judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, noting that the defense wanted to keep the trial private. “The entire international press would have said, ‘What is this?’ They observed it, saw it, heard it.”
They didn’t hear everything. During the trial, Dalla Torre relied on the Vatican’s 19th-century penal code to forbid Gabriele from discussing his contact with assorted cardinals. According to the law, Gabriele hadn’t disclosed the substance of those conversations before trial and so couldn’t do so in the courtroom.
Some church officials acknowledge that there needs to be greater commitment to openness among the Vatican’s leaders. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli runs the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which has been on the forefront of the church’s engagement in social media. Celli pointed to his lips: “You see, what I say here,” he said, moving his finger to his temple, “starts here.” But here, he added, as his finger lingered, “has to enter a new culture. And the new culture is sharing.”
But even with the trial over, the Vatican’s focus has remained on the message, rather than on changing the culture. In December, reporters packed into a Vatican briefing theater for a news conference to introduce the world to the Twitter account @pontifex, meaning both “pope” and “bridge builder.”
The pope’s Twitter followers went from single digits to 2,000 in 30 minutes. (@pontifex currently has more than 1.5 million followers.) The panelists made the case for Benedict using Twitter to drop “pearls of wisdom,” and they answered questions about the account’s infallibility (“it’s a papal teaching”) and its durability (it would be used after Benedict’s departure).
After the news conference, Diaz-Ortiz, the Twitter liaison who had flown to Rome for the event, said the “launch plan” for the pope was “similar to the Obama town hall but obviously a much more toned-down version.” The main takeaway of the day, she said, was “the pope joining Twitter should just be an encouragement for all of us to essentially keep tweeting.” In return, the Vatican got a greater presence in the modern world. It also, as the packed briefing room attested, shifted the subject for the media away from scandal.
On a rainy December day, Benedict clapped along with jugglers, lion tamers and puppeteers in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall as the church opened its arms to the world of itinerant circus performers. While a woman wearing a cat mask twirled four hula hoops in the hall, Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca was chauffeured across a piazza behind Vatican walls to greet a visitor.
“Good morning, dottore!” Sciacca called from the passenger seat of a small blue Volkswagen. Sciacca, the successor of Viganò, the central player in the leaks scandal, is a sprightly and gregarious Sicilian who walks around Rome doffing his hat to the waiters and storekeepers. He tends to stop walking when he has something to say, with the expectation that his audience will stop to listen.
Sciacca, who will play a principal role in organizing the papal transition, has a reputation for intelligence and honesty, but unlike his reform-minded predecessor, he is considered loyal to Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict’s No. 2. When asked for an interview as he window-shopped for vestments on Via dei Cestari, behind the Pantheon, he said he first needed to see the questions and get permission to talk. He shrugged off the suggestion that an official request should go through the Vatican press office.
He would need permission, he said, from Bertone.
As the Volkswagen rolled to his Vatican apartment, Sciacca claimed that he had overruled Bertone and his lieutenants in agreeing to an interview. “They told me not to talk to you!” he said, jokingly comparing himself to a “shepherd who invites in the wolf.”
The driver pulled up to Palazzo San Carlo, a centuries-old apartment building opposite the Vatican’s private gas station. Above the few steps, renovated with wheelchair access for the aged prelates, a polished gold plate held the names of the building’s residents. On a lower floor were offices belonging to one of the Vatican’s financial institutions. On the top floor lived one of the cardinals Gabriele had named as a sympathizer to his concerns about the Vatican.
Sciacca’s home is a spacious L-shaped apartment warmed by thousands of books broken into sections reflecting his years as a Latinist, high school teacher of literature and philosophy, canonist and judge on the church court. He pointed out a portrait of Benedict overlooking the hallway that he had commissioned.
“Economics, the budget, transparency! This is what I think about,” he said. “It cost a couple hundred of euros. It’s not necessary to spend more. Plus Michelangelo’s not around anymore.”
Sciacca had his good-governance talking points down. In the corner of his bedroom, opposite a purple clerical robe hung on the outside of a wooden armoire, a single bed lay under a modest comforter. (“I’m single” he joked.) In the study was a faux-marble statue of the Good Shepherd with a sheep draped over his shoulders that he had picked up “at a good price in the Vatican museums,” he said.
Over espresso and a couple of slices of pandoro at the kitchen table, covered in mandarin oranges and marmalades offered to him at the morning’s Mass, Sciacca said he’d later offer a tour of the Vatican grounds “with my cheap car. I’ve always had little cars because when I was a kid in Sicily, I noticed that people got angry if they saw priests in luxury cars. Decorum, yes, solemnity in worship and the liturgy, but the private life should always be poor.”
He took a seat on a burgundy leather couch in his study and read six typed pages he had prepared in response to transparency questions.
He paid heed to “my predecessor, the former Secretary General Viganò,” for imposing more rigorous checks on spending and the rewarding of contracts, which “I maintained and enhanced.” As a testament to his belt-tightening, he pointed to the church-owned organic cattle farm outside Rome that provided the Vatican with less-expensive beef. Mindful of the exorbitant costs Viganò targeted for the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, Sciacca focused on a cut-rate deal he had reached on a centerpiece.
“This year, we will have a full savings,” he said. He added that the pope was pleased about the budget discipline, that the region was delighted about the publicity and that the Vatican workers expressed no misgivings.
“They were all happy. They congratulated me. They said, ‘What good news!’ If they were angry they would have demonstrated their own dishonesty,” he said, referring to the workers. With his script lowered, he continued: “They’re not so stupid. This is also the proof that everyone worked well.”
Sciacca offered a hard copy of his answers and a jar of peach marmalade as he selected a bottle of wine for his lunch meeting with a powerful French cardinal from the diplomatic corps. Sciacca asked a Washington Post reporter to put his number in the prelate’s phone, an old flip-style cell. The reporter accidentally stumbled upon Sciacca’s list of contacts and backed off. “Go ahead!” Sciacca said. “There aren’t any mobsters in there. There’s nothing to hide.”
Downstairs, he asked a gendarmes officer to lend him a driver and a car, small and economical, he specified, to escort his guest on a tour of the sprawling, immaculate gardens. From the passenger seat, he pointed out elaborate fountains, the old Vatican train station and the grotto where Benedict takes a walk every afternoon. The tour concluded at St. Anne’s Gate, near where the butler was then being held. Sciacca promised an electronic copy of his answers on a disk. He later provided a Verbatim floppy disk.
Minutes later, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, called an unexpected news conference across St. Peter’s, where tourists posed in front of a circus tent, a clown performed magic tricks and workers set up the season’s Nativity scene.
The Gabriele affair, Lombardi said, should be considered a “closed chapter.” He stepped off the stage and noted how the pope, out of his respect for transparency, had studiously kept out of the butler’s trial to ensure the independence of the judges.
The theater door opened and the sound of a circus troupe playing “March of the Wooden Soldiers” filled the press office. Among the journalists filing their stories was Giovanna Chirri, the Italian reporter who would on Feb. 11 break the news of the pope’s resignation. “Guys,” she shouted to her colleagues over the band, “You think it’s a metaphor that the circus is in town?”