Were Italian Journalist’s Blackmail Allegations Baseless?

…As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

–T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, East Coker

The Witnesses

Last night, my phone rang twice, just before 3 in the morning. In the morning, I found three emails from the same person, a priest I know. He called again this morning.

He wanted to know about my letter of yesterday, which discussed an Italian press report that the Pope has received information that his Curia is riven with factions, and that this was part of the reason he decided to step down from the papacy.

“What are you doing?” the priest asked me, excitedly. “Do you really have evidence of what you are writing? And why did you put those photos in, the photos of Simeon, and Balestrero, and Bruelhart? [Editor’s note: The photos were not included in Catholic Lane’s version of the article.] Are you suggesting they were involved somehow in this? Are you accusing them? That’s what it looks like. I’ve been getting calls and emails from all over the world. Most people were dismissing this as typical mud-slinging without any foundation, another attack on the Church, false. But now that you have written it, because you are respected, people are wondering what the truth is. What is the truth?”

“I was primarily just reporting what is appearing in the Italian press,” I said. “I put the photos in because they were the photos in the article in La Repubblica.”

“But is there any evidence the La Repubblica article is anything other than an invention? How could they have seen the cardinals’ Report? It makes no sense. The Pope has the only copy, right?”

“You have a point,” I said. “It isn’t clear from the article who is the real source for these reports.”

“Well, how could anything from the cardinals’ Report have leaked out?” he asked. “The three cardinals handed it directly to the Pope. Where was the leak? Only four people knew the contents of that Report: the three cardinals, and the Pope. Are you saying one of the three cardinals leaked it?”

“No. But that’s not the only possibility,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked, excitedly. “There were the three cardinals, and the Pope. Four people. No one else knew the contents.”

“Not necessarily,” I said.

“What do you mean, not necessarily? Tell me where I’m wrong.”

I hesitated.

 “Look,” I said. “Don’t you see any other way that information about what was in that Report could have gotten out, without the cardinals revealing it, and without the Pope revealing it?”

“No,” he said. “The three cardinals wrote the report, and they gave it to the Pope. How could anyone else know what was in it?”

“Well, be imaginative,” I said. “What could be another possibility?”

“I can’t think of any,” he said. “Just that the whole thing is made up, a sheer invention, that there is no truth in it. It wouldn’t be the first time…”

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s imagine you are doing an investigation and you are preparing a report. How do you do that?”

“Well,” he said, “you take testimony. You interview people.”

 “And so…” I said.

 “So what?”

“So who knows what is in the Report?”

“The three cardinals,” he said. “They took the testimony, and it was all sub segreto…”

“Look,” I said. “Do you know the story by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Purloined Letter’? The letter was right there on the mantlepiece, out in the open, and no one saw it because they were sure it was hidden…”

“What are you saying?”

“Well, ok,” I said. “You are correct, the three cardinals and the Pope are the only ones who know the complete, final version of the Report, and it is unlikely that any of them revealed anything to anyone — unless the Vatican actually wanted this all to become public. But that seems unlikely. But you have forgotten about… the witnesses.”


“The witnesses,” I said. “They took testimony from dozens of monsignors, and some lay people. What do you think happened after those witnesses gave testimony? What do you think happened before they gave testimony?”

“What?” he asked.

“They talked to each other.”


“They talked to each other. They tried to see what questions they were going to be asked, and tried to coordinate what answers they might give, and after the testimony, they talked again, about what questions they had been asked, and what answers they had given.”

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“It’s a logical deduction,” I said, patiently. “An investigation means, ipso facto, that there were witnesses questioned. True, you can’t take it much further than that, on deduction alone. But, suppose you are an Italian journalist, and your job is to try to get something, anything, about the contents of that Report. And say you know some of the officials who work in the Vatican, and you talk to them. And suppose one or another of them  lets slip that, yes, they were questioned in the investigation. At that point, it wouldn’t be a far stretch to get some confirmation about what questions were asked and what answers were given… Because, of course, people would know what answers they themselves gave.”

“So, you are saying these reports are not based on a leak of the Report, but on interviews with monsignors who testified?”

“I suspect so, ” I said. “And not just monsignors.”

“Well, that seems pretty sketchy to me,” the priest said.

“I agree,” I said. “It is sketchy. There is not a single report yet that really is more than a sketch. They are drawing a sketch. That’s right. They don’t have all the details, just the broad outlines.”

“So there is no detailed evidence about those three people whose pictures you included?”

“No,” I said. “I included them only because they were the photos in the La Repubblica article, only for that reason.”

“Well, I hope you print a rectification,” he said. “Otherwise, what you are writing seems irresponsible…”

A few minutes later, he sent me an email. “Thanks for the clarifications,” he wrote. “It sounds to me like La Repubblica is throwing out very serious innuendo. I was just calling to give you a heads up that, unintentionally, a very wrong impression was coming across. Glad you can correct it. I think La Repubblica is throwing out a lot of innuendo (he repeated). Forgive me for advising out of place, but we need no more of these scandalous stories from the secular press, without corroboration and full of nasty implications. We have had plenty of this. Let’s meet some time.”

I went down near the Vatican. It was a cool day, almost cold. I felt exhausted, and slightly feverish.

Walking by a restaurant, the restaurant door opened and a monsignor came out. He came up to me. He was wearing clerical back and wore a Roman collar. Evidently, he had recognized me.

His face seemed familiar to me. It seemed to me I had seen him in the Vatican but I wasn’t sure, so I don’t know whether he works in the Vatican.

“Please,” he said to me, “allow us some privacy.”

He spoke in English, but with a slight accent.

At first I thought he wanted me to go with him to someplace private and talk, perhaps to tell me something.

“Give us some privacy,” he repeated, insistently.

Then I thought, “He must be referring to the article of last night.” I thought, “this priest, like the one who called me, is upset about what I wrote.”

I looked closely at his face, trying to place him. I still wasn’t sure who he meant by “us.” Priests in general, that is, all Catholic priests? Or, Vatican monsignors in particular?

“I am only reporting what others are reporting,” I said.

My words seemed not to satisfy him.

“Think about it,” he said, his eyes intent on mine, speaking with some emotion. “Give us some privacy.” He paused. “I mean it. If you don’t, it will only hurt your work, and you.”

He turned and walked back into the restaurant.

As I walked on, I received a phone call from my assistant, who had been in the press office.

“Monsignor Balestrero has just been named nuncio in Colombia,” she said to me. “It was announced officially this morning. He will be leaving the Vatican.”

Ingrao and his “Scoop”

I continued to study the La Repubblica article, and the Panorama article it was based on.

And the more I compared the two articles, both of which deal with the secret 300-page cardinals’ dossier prepared by Cardinals Herranz, Tomko and De Giorgi between April and December of 2012 “for the Pope’s eyes only,” the more I realized that there were numerous unsourced statements and conclusions.

Clearly, those who are skeptical or concerned about these reports, like the priest who called me in the night, or the priest who left his lunch to come talk to me, have a valid point: the evidence for a powerful “gay lobby” in the Vatican operating to influence curial and papal decisions, is “sketchy,” to say the least.

Perhaps the key phrase in the La Repubblica article of February 21 is the following: “La Relazione e esplicita. Alcuni alti prelati subiscono ‘l’influenza esterna’ — noi diremmo il ricatto — di laici a cui sono legati da vincoli di ‘natura mondana.'” (“The Report is explicit. Some high-ranking prelates are being subjected to ‘external influence’ — we would call it blackmail — by laypeople to whom they are linked by ties of a ‘worldly nature.'”)

This is the phrase which gave me the basis yesterday for my title, “Blackmail.” [Editor’s note: The title was changed in  Catholic Lane’s version of the article.]

The allegation here is that the Report of the three cardinals “explicitly” says that some high-ranking officials in the Curia are being “influenced” by “laypeople” who have “worldly connections” to them and therefore have influence over them — can blackmail them.

In the next few paragraphs, the article claims that the Report includes testimony about a number of past incidents in which Vatican officials were allegedly involved in some type of sexual activity, and asserts that the three cardinals delved into these incidents in their report in detail.

But how does the author of this article know this?

Nowhere in the article — nowhere — is there any indication that the author has actually seen the cardinals’ Report.

 And, if one reads the La Repubblica story a 3rd and 4th time, one finds that there are only four quotations, that is, only four sourced sentences, in the entire article.

The first is a quotation is from a public talk of the Pope on Ash Wednesday, three days after he announced his resignation (in column 1), where the Pope warned of “divisioni nel corpo ecclesiale che deturpano il volto della Chiesa” (“divisions in the ecclesial body which besmirch the face of the Church”).

This says nothing specific about the contents of the Report of the three cardinals.

The second is a public talk by Cardinal De Giorgi (bottom of column 1, top of column 2) in reaction to the Pope’s resignation, where De Giorgi says: “He made a gesture of strength, not of weakness. He did it for the good of the Church. He gave a strong message to all in the exercise of authority or of power who believe that they are not able to be replaced. The Church is made up of human beings. The pontiff saw the problems and faced them with an initiative [his resignation] which was as unprecedented as it was visionary [the word used is ‘lungimirante,’ ‘far-sighted‘].”

This says nothing specific about the contents of the Report.

The third is from the Pope’s last Angelus remarks, on February 17, when he said there is a need to “unmask the temptations of power that exploit God for their own interests.”

This says nothing specific about the contents of the Report.

The fourth quotation (column 3) is from “a man very close to the man who drafted the Report.”(!)

This is at best second-hand information.

And this is the only source even close to the Report that is cited in the entire article, and un-named, of course.

And what does this source say? “Tutto ruota attorno alla non osservanza del sesto and del settimo commandamento.” (“Everything [in the Report] centers on the non-observance of the 6th and 7th commandments.”)

The entire 4th column of the article is a series of “vignettes” or allusions to old cases which the author of the La Repubblica piece, Concita De Gregorio, says were “explored” by the three cardinals in their investigation, and summed up in their Report.

But no evidence is given that this actually occurred; that is, no evidence is given that the Report actually contains material related to “a villa outside Rome” or other places where meetings or parties allegedly occurred.

In other words, this article contains no sourced evidence whatsoever, except for the (alleged) statement of “a man close to the man who drafted the Report” that “everything centers on the non-observance of the 6th and 7th commandments.”

That sentence is the only “semi-sourced” sentence in the entire article.

Everything else is assertion.

And, interestingly, at the end of the article, there is a very odd little paragraph, which I noticed the first time I read the article, yesterday at noon-time. It says that “on the last day of his pontificate [February 28], Benedict XVI will receive the three cardinals who composed the Report in private audience. Immediately afterward, next to Tomko [who is from Slovakia], he will see the bishops and faithful of Slovakia in St. Mary Major. His last public audience.”

The point of this was to show how much respect Pope Benedict has for Cardinal Tomko, enough that he will meet with Slovakians on his last day as Pope.

And Benedict undoubtedly has great respect for Tomko, who is now 89.

But it is simply not true that the Pope will meet with Slovakian Catholics in St. Mary Major, or anywhere.

This sentence is simply, totally, untrue.

The Pope will not go to St. Mary Major on the last day of his pontificate.

Indeed, the effort to get a Pope across the city of Rome from the Vatican to another basilica is a major one, requiring weeks of pre-planning. Such a trip never happens without weeks of advance notice. And there has been no notice of such a planned trip across town. 

Frankly, anyone who knows anything about the Vatican, any Vatican journalist, from the newest to the oldest, would have, and should have, known that this statement, that the Pope would go across town to St. Mary Major on the last day of his papacy, is impossible and silly.

Yet this statement ends the article.

Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the director of the Vatican press office, noted this at a press conference yesterday, just a couple of hours after the La Repubblica article appeared.

He said that this evident error at the end of the article should be reason for anyone who reads the article to take the rest of it with a grain of salt.

A question arose: who is Concita De Gregorio (photo), the author of the La Repubblica article?

Well, she is a 49-year-old Italian journalist and writer, married with four children. She was born in Pisa to a Spanish mother and an Italian father. She took her college degree in political science, then went to work for various TV and radio stations in north-central Italy. She began to work at La Repubblica in 1990, covering Italian politics.

Significantly, she was named the editor of the daily l’Unità, from 2008 to 2011. L’Unità was the daily of the Italian Communist Party throughout the 1970s and 1980s, until the party dissolved and changed its name to the Democratic Party of the Left.

So the thought came to me that perhaps this woman, who certainly is accomplished and is known in Italy as an excellent, eloquent writer, may nevertheless have superficial knowledge of the Vatican, and may write from the perspective of someone who has focused on Italian politics, and has worked for a formerly Communist newspaper. It would be useful to meet with her, I decided.

Of course, a person can make one mistake, and her article can still contain some truths.

But, in the case of this article, the overall bottom line is this: the article is a strange amalgem which makes unsubstantiated, un-sourced assertions about the Report of the three cardinals, weaves them into a story built around two quotes from Pope Benedict and one from Cardinal De Giorgi — none of which make a direct reference to the cardinals’ Report — and one un-sourced quote from “a man close to the man who drafted the Report” which says the whole Report revolves around the two sins of adultery and stealing.

In short, there is nothing here to hang one’s hat on.

Then why did I give any credibility whatsoever to the article, in my letter of yesterday, and even today?

Well, for four chief reasons.

First, this article appeared in one of Italy’s major papers — the largest circulation paper in the country — and it was “picked up” by others who sent the news around the world.

Second, because this was not the only article on this matter. There was also the article the La Repubblica article was based on: the article by Ignazio Ingrao in Panorama, which I still need to examine.

Third, I have had conversations with high-ranking Church officials over more than 25 years, including with Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who once headed the Vatican bank, and Pope Benedict himself, before he became Pope, which led me to consider the possibility that some of these allegations might have some truth in them.

Fourth, and most importantly, because I think it is critical to discern whether the Church and her leaders are: (a) being slandered by the attacks of her enemies, or (b) whether human weaknesses, sins and betrayals are preventing the Church from carrying out her mission effectively, and subjecting her to forces from outside her. It is part of my work as a writer about the Church to try to discern these things.

The Church’s mission is to preach and live the Gospel, not simply to maintain a political or cultural position, a position that sometimes may even be an impediment to her mission.

Few things could be more dangerous to the Church than that her leaders be subject to blackmail. If a friend or member of my family would be subject to blackmail, I would move heaven and earth to help that friend or family member to be free of such evil tentacles.

I believe that, to protect the Church, to protect her freedom and her mission, each and every source of outside pressure and control which might influence, constrain or compel a decision to be taken on any basis other than the basis of what is for the good of the Church, and in keeping with the faith that has been handed down to us, must be identified and if possible removed.

I believe that it is critical that no Pope, no cardinal, no bishop, no priest, no layperson, be subjected to any form of “blackmail.” We should fight to remove any shadow of outside “influence” over the decisions of the Church’s leaders.

I believe that some of the issues touched on in the La Repubblica and Panorama articles are, in fact, of deep concern to the Holy Father.

I believe that the cardinals who enter the upcoming Conclave must be free to continue the effort to cleanse and purify the Church that Pope Benedict has attempted to carry out.

The truth on these matters is not to be feared. Christ is with His Church, and always will be. What is to be feared is anything that covers up the truth, and makes the Church vulnerable to outside pressures and interests.

The Church must be free to carry out her essential identity and mission. And it is the freedom of the Church that is at stake today.

(to be continued)


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Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.