An unholy civil war in the Vatican

Leaked documents from the Vatican Bank have put Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at the centre of an almighty scandal. Is the Pope's 'prime minister' waging war in the Holy See?

The Vatican has long been said to be "a nest of vipers", says The Independent. The "Vatileaks" affair has laid the poison bare, revealing a vicious and unholy civil war raging within the Holy See. Among the unsavoury secret documents supposedly leaked by the Pope's butler before his arrest last month are allegations of "death threats" (against the Pope and others), child murder, gay smears and mafia links.

But it is the charges of corruption against the Pope's "prime minister", Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and his alleged cover-up of shady dealings at the Vatican Bank that has got Italian financiers sweating.

His Eminence has come out fighting, says The Daily Telegraph. In a rare interview with Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana, he dismissed critical reports as the work of Dan Brown fantasists, determined "to invent fairy tales and repeat legends", while "ignoring" the good the Church does. "There is an attempt to sow division that comes from the Devil."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Bertone's supporters claim the "great reformer" is the victim of a political smear campaign conducted by rival factions in the Curia. Few believe the Pope's butler acted alone in leaking confidential papers to Gianluigi Nuzzi, the journalist who revealed the allegations.

Yet the controversy surrounding the Vatican bank won't go away, says The New York Times. Bertone is under pressure to explain the ousting of Vatican bank chief, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, in May. Tedeschi was seen by some as instrumental in forcing the bank to become more transparent and conform with international money-laundering rules. Bertone is accused of "trying to impede his efforts".

There are also questions about Bertone's alleged "empire-building" in Milan, says The Guardian. In particular, a failed plan to take over a bankrupt hospital owned by an associate of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, which is now at the centre of a fraud inquiry after the suicide of its chief accountant.

"I don't think Bertone is a thief, he is just not up to the job," argues one Vatican analyst. Allegations of incompetence rather than venality have dogged Bertone for much of his career (see below). Born in Piedmont in 1934, his vocation was never in doubt: he joined the Salesian order as a sixteen-year-old in 1950 and rose rapidly.

Appointed an Archbishop by John-Paul II in 1991, Bertone won plaudits for his handling of a delicate situation in Zambia in 2001, when the ruling Archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, set up a separatist group in 1988. Appointed a cardinal in 2003, he coattailed rising star Cardinal Ratzinger, who became pope in 2005.

With the 85-year-old Pope now frail, we are witnessing the mother of all succession battles, says The Guardian. Hence the poisonous relationship between Bertone and rival factions within the Church. "The winning side could have a huge say over who replaces the pontiff The stakes are high and time is short."

The shadow cast by the murder of God's Banker

The big shadow hanging over the recent allegations of financial skulduggery at the Vatican, says Michael Day inThe Independent, is that of Roberto Calvi the Italian financier known as "God's Banker". His brutal murder in London in 1982 has never been fully cleared up and it continues to "taint" the Church's financial dealings.

Indeed, it's arguable that the Vatileaks scandal is merely a continuation of that affair. Earlier this year, magistrates in Rome publicly lamented that officials at the Holy See "were still refusing to co-operate" with their attempts to get to the bottom of whether Mafia cash is still percolating through the Vatican bank.

As William Oddie notes in The Catholic Herald, Vatileaks is certainly a conspiracy. The question is who is conspiring against whom. All the evidence suggests that attempts to pin corruption allegations on Cardinal Bertone (who shares the conservative doctrine of Pope Benedict) are aimed at his removal.

It's simply the continuation of a long campaign waged by Vatican State Department officials since his appointment as the Pope's Secretary of State in 2006. Having failed to win the argument that he lacked the brainpower and diplomatic skills for the job, they've resorted to dirtier tactics.

Still, Bertone's own record when it comes to infighting is hardly whiter than white, says Tom Kington in The Guardian. Opponents claim he's a past master at nepotism, packing key Vatican posts with priests from his own Salesian order. And if his financial affairs are so squeaky clean, why doesn't he speak up?

In his blog Whispers in the Loggia', Rocco Palmo relates the story of the Cardinal boarding a bus full of young people and breaking the ice with his "characteristic" smile. "By the time he reached his destination, the prelate had engaged the youth in a deep conversation on love, sex, virginity and chastity." Many wish he would now have a similarly "deep conversation" on the subject of financial transparency.