The tiny Vatican City state in the centre of Rome certainly punches above its weight when it comes to international intrigue and scandal. Once again the Holy See is under siege. There are no tanks lined up in St Peter's Square. Nor is such a scenario likely to eventuate. The setting is one of monumental calm and peace. Pigeons circle St Peter's dome as they have always done. The antiquity of this place stretches back to Etruscan times.
One might notice a small gathering of people and a few priests in one corner of the square holding placards and green balloons. A group protesting the innocence of the Pope's personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, accused of leaking secret Vatican documents from the pope's desk to La Repubblica. Oh, the intrigue. What we have here is yet another sordid chapter in the ongoing machinations recorded from medieval times down to the present. Welcome to Vatigate. Or as the current scandal terms it, "Vatileak".
The Vatican is no stranger to controversy recorded down through generations of successive popes. John XII became Pope at 18. He indulged his youthful lust by throwing wild orgies; Benedict IX, accused of rape and murder, was regarded as a "demon from hell". He dallied in homosexual assignations before selling off his papacy, only to take it back by force. Unsurprisingly, he was excommunicated; Alexander VI, a scion of the powerful Borgia family, staged a banquet in 1501 in Rome at which dozens of courtesans and cardinals were awarded prizes for scampering around buck-naked on all fours collecting chestnuts thrown at them.
Saturnalia. What fun! The Romans have always partied hard ever since the decadent days of the Imperialist Empire. One can see where the film-maker, Fellini, got much of his inspiration. The 9th century Pope Stephen VI is famous for digging up his predecessor, propping the corpse up on a throne, interrogating him, putting him on trial for illegally becoming Pope, finding the corpse guilty, then tossing it into the Tiber. Pope Joan, the story goes, disguised herself as a man to get onto the papal throne. She was caught out, however, giving birth and that was the end of that.
Recent controversy has centred on clerical abuse and scandal concerning paedophilia throughout the parishes of the world and the subsequent papal coverup.
One might say that the barbarians are once again at the gate. Except the barbarians in this case are phalanxes of lawyers and media seeking justice and compensation for victims of abuse. As it stands, legions of those who have suffered at the hands of the clergy have gone public, and accused the church not only of subterfuge, but moving those priests under suspicion to other parishes rather than reporting them to authorities, thereby compounding the problem by putting other children at risk.
The Holy See has also been shaken by accusations of Mafia affiliations, fraud and money laundering through the Vatican bank known as the Institute of Religious Works, which sounds like a government department in charge of the city sewage system. Not too far from the truth perhaps.
We may recall the fate that befell Banco Ambrosiano chairman Roberto Calvi. He was known as "God's Banker" because of his links with the Vatican. He was found hanging from a London bridge. So much for tax evasion.
But back to the future with Paolo Gabriele, the Pope's personal (ex) butler. He is by all accounts a mild mannered, honest man doing what he thought was right to bring to book certain cardinals involved in a power struggle to depose the second in command, the Cardinal Secretary of State responsible for the administration, finance, and day-to-day running of the tiny state. Some say he is too powerful. Others consider the Pope too weak. It is rumoured a clutch of hard-core traditionalist cardinals have their own man lined up for the top job.
We can easily conjure what might have happened. The butler had ordered Pope Benedict XVI's favourite "Big German breakfast" comprising pumpernickel and gouda cheese, sauerkraut and bratwurst followed by a slab of apple dumpling washed down with a cauldron of piping hot black coffee. A man in his position needs a hearty breakfast. The Pope, meanwhile, was in the ensuite bathroom attending to his toilet. Paolo could hear him in the shower singing with gusto old German folk ballads, and had already laid out the day's apparel upon the Pope's queen sized bed neatly covered with a gorgeous gold thread and mother of pearl embroidered counterpane. A gift from the Bavarian Post-Lutheran Women's Catholic League upon Benedict's ascendancy to the papal throne. His ordinary daywear comprised a white dress, white cape, a gold pectoral cross. Casual, daytime wear, you might say.
Paolo may have stumbled over the Pope's red slippers lying in the middle of the room while delivering the breakfast to the Pope's desk. Hurriedly, he made to clean up the spilt coffee only to disturb a green vellum folder. The papers that spilled from it immediately caught his eye. What the butler saw, and who placed the incriminating documents there, is yet to be fully disclosed.
Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He resides in the North King Country.
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