The butler did it!
The Pope and the Spy Who Loved Him
A fascinating piece on the intrigue surrounding the Pope’s butler, who smuggled sensitive documents to the press about corruption in the Vatican. The Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who was the butler’s main contact in the media, relays a haunting anecdote about a monsignor within the Vatican walls:
The butler did it! That was the tabloid take on the unprecedented breach of security that shook the Vatican last year, when a trove of secrets plucked from one of the most impenetrable places on earth—the pope's private quarters—was leaked to the media. But why did he do it? And did he act alone? Sean Flynn digs around the Vatican's strange, cloistered world and unravels a cloak-and-dagger scandal that's a lot more layered than the Church would have you believe—and that may be just the beginning.
At the café they exchanged pleasantries, caught up. But then Nuzzi's friend announced his true intention: He had another friend—he wouldn't say who, exactly—who wanted to share some secrets from inside the notoriously leakproof walls of the Vatican. Nuzzi didn't find this particularly surprising. People often want to tell him things: He's on television, the host of an investigative news show called The Untouchables. But he didn't find it particularly interesting, either. Though he'd written a well-received book in 2009 about the Vatican bank's history of shady dealings, Nuzzi had no desire to become a specialist in the inner workings of the world's smallest sovereign nation. And who knew what an anonymous source might be offering.
Still, his friend was insistent. Nuzzi told him to pass along Nuzzi's cell-phone number.
Sometime later, Nuzzi got another call, this time from a man he did not know. He doesn't know his real name, so he refers to him as The Contact. The Contact told Nuzzi that, if he was interested, he should take a train from Milan, where he lives and broadcasts his show, to Rome and then go to a bar near Piazza Mazzini. Nuzzi still didn't know if he was interested, but this was the sort of thing—shadowy encounters with strangers—that Nuzzi enjoys. He has been a journalist for almost twenty years, mostly in print before moving to television a few years ago, and prefers working with confidential sources and documents. He likens himself to a submarine, prowling beneath the waves and surfacing only when he has something to report. Think of how many fish have yet to be discovered, he says, how many trenches still are unexplored!
Two men, both Italians in their forties dressed in conservative suits, met Nuzzi at the bar. They asked him many questions— about his professional interests, his tactics, how he keeps anonymous sources anonymous. They were affable and polite, but Nuzzi guessed they weren't clerics. "They let slip a few words," he later wrote, "that recalled the barracks more than the sacristy." They offered no secrets. Rather, Nuzzi realized, they were assessing him, gauging whether he could be trusted.
Apparently he could be. A second meeting was arranged—another bar, the same two men. After some small talk, one of them pulled from his pocket a folded sheet of paper. He handed it to Nuzzi, who smoothed it out, read quickly. On it was a list of grievances involving two well known monsignors inside Vatican City. But the complaints were anonymous, which reduced them to gossip. These were the dark secrets—nameless trifles?
Nuzzi handed back the paper. "No, thank you," he told the men.
Both men smiled and said nothing.
Nuzzi was confused. But the men seemed satisfied, and then he understood: The tip had been a bluff, a test to see if he'd grab any silly slander or if he was a serious journalist interested in a serious story.
"Let's go for a walk," one of the men said. Nuzzi followed them outside, where a van was parked. They drove for almost an hour, but in circles, looping through the streets, making sure they weren't followed. Then they stopped in front of an apartment building not far from where they'd started. The men had a key to a vacant unit. They led Nuzzi inside, down a hallway, and into a room empty except for a single plastic chair.
A man was sitting in the chair. He told Nuzzi he had worked inside the Vatican for about twenty years. He professed to be a devout and pious Catholic, which Nuzzi would come to believe because the man quoted Gospel passages and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI from memory. The man was uncomfortable meeting with a journalist, but he said his conscience left him no alternative. There are scandals in the Holy See, he told Nuzzi, hypocrisies and frauds practiced upon the Church, and even upon Benedict himself, that he could no longer abide.
The man said he had documents that would prove the truth. He had collected memos and letters for years, and he would give them to Nuzzi. But their meetings could never become known. They could never speak on the phone or communicate by e-mail. They would meet only in person, on a prearranged schedule. Also, the man wanted a code name.
"Maria," the man suggested.
Nuzzi smiled. He liked it. Maria, he thought. The messenger above suspicion.
However, Gabriele was not the only source. "Maria," Nuzzi tells me, "is a collective." He says there were about twenty moles in all. There were the sources who preferred to meet in the bright aisles of La Feltrinelli bookstore on the north side of the Area Sacra ruins; others he met in the dining room in a hotel with a view of St. Peter's and in a restaurant that serves small portions of expensive food on Via Luigi Settembrini. "When I told you about walking in the park and it was snowing, that was with one person," Nuzzi says.
"When I told you about another meeting, that was another person."
He also believes that Gabriele's motive in leaking documents was just as he explained it. "He had a very high level of expectation for the Church," the friend says. And when he saw the mortal side of the Vatican, the fallible human elements, he was terribly disillusioned, and he wanted the world to know so the Church could right itself.
"He knows so much," the friend says. "But now the moment he decides to talk, he's just a gold-nugget stealer."
After he was arrested, according to the childhood friend, Gabriele's wife asked what he thought would happen now that he'd been accused of betraying the Holy See. "I started out scrubbing toilets," he told her, "and I'll probably go back to scrubbing toilets." He told Nuzzi, "My conscience is clear."
So he went to Vatican jail to do his time. His wife came to see him once a week, and he was allowed out for Mass in a small chapel on Sundays. He passed his days by painting, and he joked to Manuela that maybe he'd hold an exhibition of his canvases when he was released. "But they're all so dark," she told him, "like Munch."
The narrow legal machinations might have been eminently fair, but in a broader sense Gabriele's motives do matter. Rightly or wrongly, he believed he was exposing misbehavior in his beloved Church, willingly risking his cherished career and his family's security. "So who's the bad guy?" Nuzzi asks. "Is it the butler? Or is it the guys in all these documents?"
He feels terrible for Gabriele. Nuzzi told him there were risks, but he never expected his source would be arrested, would be sent to Vatican jail. "He can't spend Christmas in there," he told me in early December.
In the end, though, Gabriele will be a footnote to his own story, because it's not about him anymore. In fact, on the first Sunday in June, the Italian paper La Repubblica published leaked Vatican documents it reported had been delivered after Gabriele had been arrested—along with a note that claimed the butler was merely a scapegoat.
"It's a story now," Nuzzi says, "of, for the first time, this wall of silence that's always been protected and has now been pierced. And that sets a precedent."
But the Vatican is more than the pope, and for the greater institution the leaks were never primarily about the betrayal of Benedict. The scandal was always about a breach in the cloistered secrecy of a tiny sovereign nation. The palace gossip and the allegations of corruption that seeped out were merely evidence of a larger, more fundamental problem, much like rivulets of water trickling from the face of a dam about to burst. No matter who is elected pope this spring—a reformer from the Southern Hemisphere, an Italian traditionalist, a Filipino!—the institutional Vatican will surely spackle the cracks. The Vatican's business is not to be shared.
It's a curious perspective. In early December, when one of his sources was doing time in Vatican jail, Nuzzi tried to explain it. He told me a story, in the same way that he'd been told, about an elderly monsignor who lived in the Vatican not so many years ago.
One warm night, when the monsignor had guests for dinner and the window open to catch the breeze, the cats that prowl the tiled roofs were making a racket, howling and mewling in the twilight. The monsignor despised those cats. So he got up from the table, retrieved an antique carbine, and fired a few shots out the window. Then he sat back down as if nothing unusual had occurred.
The next morning, two nuns climbed to the roofs with buckets, into which they deposited a few dead cats. And nothing more was ever said about the incident.
The point, Nuzzi said, the key to understanding everything else, was what never happened: No one suggested taking away the monsignor's rifle. The real problem was what was left littering the rooftops. And so it was enough, it was proper, to simply cart away the bodies.
"Gabriele told me that story," he said. "I think Gabriele told me." He shrugged. "You can say Gabriele told me. It was one of them."
The pope pardoned Gabriele three days before Christmas and expelled him from the Vatican for eternity.