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HideJournalist (archival): Vatican police have formally charged Pope Benedict’s butler in a case…

Andrew West, Religion and Ethics Report (archival): Today, what’s behind the latest intrigue in the Vatican as the pope’s butler is arrested for allegedly leaking secrets?

Journalist (archival): The 46-year-old admits he leaked documents to expose evil and corruption.

Annabelle Quince: Throughout the year the world has watched in fascination as the scandal surrounding the pope’s former butler was reported in the international and Italian press.

The story began earlier this year when secret church documents mysteriously appeared in print. The documents detailed a rather unsavoury power struggle within the Vatican hierarchy. In May, the pope’s personal butler was arrested and charged with stealing documents. He was arrested by the Vatican police, held in custody in a Vatican jail and later tried and convicted by a Vatican court.

The whole story of why the butler did what he did, whether he acted alone, and just what impact the power struggle may have on the Catholic Church is still being played out. But what we found fascinating about the whole story was the fact that the Vatican, the smallest nation on earth, has its own police force, a whole legal system and its own jails. And it got us thinking about the history of the Vatican: when and how did it come into existence, how is it financed, and what’s its relationship to the Catholic Church?


Hello, I’m Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN and downloadable from the web. Today, the story of the Vatican City.

Many of us will know the Vatican via St Peter’s Square, but as Robert Mickens, the Rome Correspondent for The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly, points out, St Peter’s Square is merely the facade of the Vatican City.

Robert Mickens: St Peter’s Square is actually just the doormat, if you will, of what they call Vatican City, which is a walled entity of about 44 hectares—I think that’s a hundred or so, hundred and ten acres, I think. It’s an area of about the size of an 18-hole golf course, with beautiful gardens and lots of interesting buildings and shops and all the things that you would need, like a fire department, post office, a grocery store, pharmacy, printing press—all of those things that you would need in a regular little village.

Annabelle Quince: Today, the Vatican City is completely surrounded by the city of Rome. John Pollard is a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University and specialises in the history of Italy and the papacy in the twentieth century. He spoke to me via Skype.

John Pollard: The site of the Vatican City is on the left bank of the River Tiber in Rome. It consists mainly of gardens, but there are a lot of buildings, the old radio station, there’s a railway station, there’s a street of shops. But very much more important, there are the museums, the archives, the library, there is a little prison and a tribunal, there is a hotel, there is the offices of the Vatican newspaper. It is a miniature city, but it really is miniature.

Annabelle Quince: So who lives in the Vatican City?

Robert Mickens: Well, the pope lives here of course. He’s the bishop of Rome and that is his residence. He lives in what they call the Apostolic Palace, which is a large Renaissance building. Other people that live there are his closest aides or collaborators, so that the leading cardinals in the church, the cardinal secretary of state, he lives inside, as do the top officials in his section of governance. Also there are a series of religious women, nuns, who do things like running the switchboard for the Vatican phone system, because obviously, in a city, you need communications.

There is a community of brothers, religious brothers, that run the pharmacies. A number of other people: gardeners and folks like that, caretakers, butlers and such for these various cardinals and the pope himself, his personal assistants. In total, there are about… there’s several hundred people that actually live inside the Vatican City.

Now, having said that, just outside the walls, in many of the buildings surrounding the area, there are a lot of those buildings are extraterritorial; that is that although they’re outside the walls they are part of the Vatican and they’re Vatican territory. So some of the people in those buildings are also included in residents of the Holy See. Most importantly, the people that would have a Vatican passport or a Holy See passport are those that would be doing sensitive diplomatic missions for the church.

Annabelle Quince: Historically, the pope’s political control was not confined to the Vatican City. For centuries, the Papal States directly controlled much of Italy. This, however, came to an end during the nineteenth century, with the movement for the unification of Italy.

John Pollard: Until 1870, Rome was the capital of the small Papal States. The pope was not only pope, head of the Catholic Church, he was also in effect a king. Then in 1870, as the process of Italian unification proceeded, Italian troops occupied Rome and made Rome the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. And the pope retreated into the Vatican and at that point the Vatican—that is, the Basilica, the palace and the gardens et cetera—was effectively part of Italy. And because of that the pope and the Italian State were in serious dispute. And in 1929, Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, and Pope Pius XI concluded an agreement. And part of that agreement was to set up the state of the Vatican City. Very, very small, but it gave the pope the feeling, the reality of independence.

Annabelle Quince: The 1929 agreement—the Lateran treaties—gave the pope a state of his own. But did the agreement also benefit the Italian dictator Mussolini? Paul Collins is a Catholic historian and broadcaster.

Paul Collins: Mussolini was nothing if not a realist and he certainly understood the Italian psyche. He understood that the papacy was the—if you like—the kind of central authority of the Catholic Church and as such it needed a certain level of independence from the state of Italy. Mussolini gained a number of advantages in terms of control over the church: a concordat, or an agreement, between the state of Italy and the Vatican City state was drawn up and it really settled what had been a running sore in Italian politics. And Catholics had been quite alienated from the Republican government, which was there until Mussolini seized power in the early ‘20s, and then Mussolini’s government really in many ways got Catholics much more on side, and that was pretty important in a country which was about 90 per cent or more Catholic.

Annabelle Quince: Was the Vatican City in 1929 immediately recognised as a state or a nation in its own right?

Paul Collins: What’s officially recognised is the Holy See; that is, the government of the Catholic Church. The Vatican City State is just a territory in which the Holy See exists and operates. The Australian government, for instance, and many, many other governments throughout the world, send their ambassador to the Holy See. The Australian ambassador is the ambassador to the Holy See, the British ambassador to the Holy See, the US ambassador to the Holy See, and so on.

So what is recognised is actually the, if you like, the government, the central government of the Catholic Church in so far as it is vested in the papacy. And the Vatican City state is simply the territory in which the Holy See operates. The Holy See also has representation at the United Nations. It doesn’t have a seat in the United Nations, but it is officially recognised and represented on many United Nations bodies. Now, there are quite a few people around just at the present moment who would want to withdraw that recognition from the Holy See, but often the people who make these arguments get confused between the Holy See and the Vatican.

Annabelle Quince: How well did the newly created Vatican City state deal with the tensions that erupted in Europe as a result of World War II?

Robert Mickens: Well, remember it wasn’t a nation, it was a state, and most of its inhabitants were Italian, which was a problem. But from June 1940 through to June 1944, the ambassadors of the allied powers—Britain, France, and eventually the United States of America and other powers who were at war with Italy—had to withdraw into the Vatican. They lived inside the Vatican, because though they were the ambassadors to the pope, of course they were the enemies of fascist Italy.

Paul Collins: Essentially the Vatican City state, that territory, became a neutral territory. Just as Switzerland was caught in the middle of Europe, so the Vatican City state was neutral territory right in the middle of Rome. It was very important during the Second World War, because it did guarantee—to some extent at any rate—the independence of the papacy. Of course it wasn’t totally independent, because for the papacy to communicate it had to get out through Italy. But its independence was respected, was guaranteed and respected.

John Pollard: There was plenty of evidence that at one point Hitler seriously considered occupying Vatican City and taking the pope off into captivity somewhere in Germany or Austria. The SS surrounded Vatican City and they stood with Italian soldiers on the borders, particularly across St Peter’s Square. They controlled access and of course in the end they could have pulled… literally pulled the plug on the Vatican City, because of course they controlled the telephone system and electricity.

But during the German occupation of Rome thousands of Jews, partisans, escaped prisoners of war had sought refuge in various monasteries and convents and other religious institutes, and even in the Vatican itself.

Paul Collins: It did mean that a number of people who lived within the Vatican City state were able to do some things at any rate to protect Jews, and some Italian Jews did take refuge within the Vatican City state. But I’d be personally fairly critical of the fact that that neutrality was perhaps not used as effectively as it could have been. And of course in the period after the war you have the deplorable business of a number of bishops using the Vatican and the Vatican’s neutrality as a cover for Nazis and particular Nazis from the old Yugoslavia, giving them ways of escaping to Latin America. So it’s been a mixed blessing, without any doubt, this independence of the Vatican.


Annabelle Quince: You’re with Rear Vision on RN and via the web. I’m Annabelle Quince and today we’re tracing the history of the Vatican City.

As mentioned earlier, the Vatican City is not much bigger than an 18-hole golf course so how does it finance itself?

John Pollard: Until 1929, the Vatican was the central headquarters of the Catholic Church, largely financed itself from the contributions of the faithful, what we call ‘Peter’s Pence’. Interestingly, that was a form of contribution which originated in England, in Saxon England. But in 1929, as part of this agreement which Mussolini made with Pius XI, a very substantial sum of money was transferred to the Vatican as compensation for its losses. And the Vatican was extremely lucky to have a brilliant Italian financier, Bernardino Nogara, take over control of that money and invest it. And he invested it very wisely and very successfully.

So from 1929 onwards, a major part, probably a third of the Vatican’s income came from the profits of investments. Interestingly, the state of the Vatican City as an entity has never made a loss, because it makes a huge amount of money from tourism, from the people who go to visit the museums. Literally millions of people pass through the doors of the museums every year, plus it makes a huge amount of money from stamps and coins, because it has its own post office, it has its own stamps and it has its own coinage, which of course is sold largely as souvenirs.

Robert Mickens: The museums bring in millions of dollars each year; for good reasons: it costs about, I think, 15 euros—is it?—take 12 to 15 euros for admission. And they had something like four million visitors last year. It’s one of the most visited museums in the world. The Vatican museums are world-renowned and the queues are long to get in there on most days. So they generate lots of money through the museums. They also sell souvenirs and whatnot, which brings in much less, but the museums are really the cash cow of the Vatican.

They also have a printing press, they sell lots of books and documents and things. That would be one of the main sources of revenue. Now, you have to distinguish between Vatican City state and the Roman Curia or the central bureaucracy of the church. I know this is very confusing, but Vatican City state and the Holy See have two separate budgets. This drives those of us who have to report on all this a bit mad, because it’s hard to distinguish which pot this money goes into and where it comes from.

The freewill offerings of Catholics from around the world, something that’s called ‘Peter’s Pence’, do not go for the financing of any of the church’s bureaucracy or the running of any of its institutions. That is money that’s given to the pope for his discretionary use for charity. The rest of the money through other donations… the Knights of Columbus, for example—a massively huge organisation mainly based in the United States—they have an insurance company and they’re extremely wealthy and they routinely finance things like the cleaning of the Basilica, which was a major undertaking. The first time it was done was back in the 1980s—St Peter’s had never been properly cleaned, the façade—and the Knights of Columbus did that then, and they continue to do it today. At this very moment they are cleaning the colonnades around St Peter’s Square—those huge, massive columns—that is being financed mainly by the Knights of Columbus. So there are private entities that also give money to the pope and the Holy See for these kinds of things.

They also have investments. The Holy See has… or the Vatican City has a bank—not a bank actually, it’s a savings institute, mainly for religious orders and priests—and they invest that money and they get revenue from that. One other thing is that they own about one-third of the property in Rome and they rent that property and they get revenue from that as well.

Tony Eastley, AM (archival): For the first time in history, Italian prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the affairs of the Vatican Bank. Police have seized $32 million-worth of funds amid claims that the Holy See was involved in some form of money laundering.

Paul Collins: The Vatican has wanted to clean up its financial act, because of course there is such a thing as the Vatican Bank, and of course there’ve been terrible scandals, particularly centring around people like the mafia don, Sindona, and the dishonest banker, Calvi. They were using the Vatican Bank as a way of laundering money out of Italy without the jurisdiction of the Italian financial authorities.

Emma Alberici, AM (archival): The alarm was raised by the Bank of Italy’s intelligence unit. It became suspicious about two transactions: $27 million was about to be moved from the Vatican to JPMorgan Bank in Frankfurt.

John Pollard: There have been accusations, and almost certainly there have been instances, where the Vatican Bank has been involved in some form of money laundering. The most recent accusations have led to the resignation of the president of the Vatican Bank and that is now under investigation both by Italian judicial authorities but also allegedly by an internal commissioner in the Vatican.

The problem is that the Vatican Bank takes money not just from the Vatican itself, from institutions inside the Vatican and from employees, but there is a much wider, shall we say, circle of people who have established some kind of relationship with the Vatican Bank and sometimes those people are not entirely salubrious.

Annabelle Quince: So how is the Vatican City governed? Is there any form of parliament, or does the pope have sole control over the city and its administration?

Paul Collins: The Vatican is an absolute monarchy. So if you want a kind of a broader model of how absolute monarchies work, you might look at the monarchy of King Louis XIV. In other words, it tends to be a court that surrounds the monarch and there are inner circles and outer circles and then outer circles outside the outer circles. I suppose that the real inner circle—this has been especially true under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI—the inner circle are the people who work in the… what’s called the ‘pontifical household’; that is, the fourth floor of the Lateran Palace, where the pope actually lives.

Now, he doesn’t live in luxury and he’s not surrounded by all types of glittering gold and silver and everything. It’s actually a quite small, rather claustrophobic area. But certainly the papal secretary—and the present one is a Bavarian, a monseigneur by the name of Georg Gänswein— Gänswein and the other papal secretary and the people who make up the household are the people who are going to have the most intimate interconnection with the pope. This is where the whole case of the butler comes up, because he was part of that household.

Surrounding that you have what’s called the ‘secretariat of state’. It’s presided over by one person, the papal secretary of state, who at the present moment is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is largely seen, even within the Vatican itself, as a not particularly competent person. And when you don’t have a strong, powerful person in this kind of an absolutist system, this leads then to an enormous amount of shenanigans going on all around the place. And at the present moment there’s a lot of internal rows going on, most of them more or less centring around Cardinal Bertone. And certainly, again, referring to the papal butler, he seems to have been part of these goings on that focus on Bertone.

Outside that you have what’s called the Roman Curia. This is a committee of cardinals who supervise, if you like, a government department; so that’s, if you like, an outer circle beyond the secretariat of state. And then even more peripheral to that there are a whole series of officers, or ‘pontifical councils’, as they’re called, and they deal with more contemporary issues, like ecumenism, social justice, healthcare—a whole range of things.

It’s a bit like an onion. You kind of move out from the inner core of the onion through circles around the onion that have less and less influence as you move out.

Annabelle Quince: I mean, I guess the only difference, say, between those absolute monarchs of the past and what happens in the Vatican City is very much that the pope is actually elected.

Robert Mickens: Yes, there is one moment when democracy—if you will, pure democracy, in a sense—is present, and that’s at the conclave when the cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel, behind closed doors, and one by one put their ballots in an urn at an altar before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. And they elect the Bishop of Rome, the pope, so in that sense there is a democratic element in this very ancient absolute monarchy.

Journalist (archival): Authorities are investigating how in recent months Italian newspapers obtained documents that describe power struggles within the church, an affair that’s become known as ‘Vatileaks’.

Robert Mickens: Back in late January, a television program in Italy claimed to have documents that came from the papal apartment. This began a series of leaks of documents that a journalist was given by someone within the Vatican. An investigation was carried out and in late May; the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, who’s 46 years old, married, has three children, lives inside Vatican City, he was arrested, incarcerated in a cell at the Vatican gendarme.

They said that they found within his possession, in his apartment, some 80 boxes of documents that came from the pope’s apartment. It was an amazing story how somebody could have smuggled out of the pope’s apartment 80 boxes of documents. He said that he started photocopying these documents back in 2006—not sure why. The Vatican has said right from the very beginning that he acted alone.

John Pollard: A lot of the motivation of this man is not clear and secondly, what is not also clear is how many accomplices he had. There appear to have been some accomplices. But what effectively happened was he started removing documents—and maybe somebody else assisted him in this—documents which were really very, very top secret, that were really very sensitive and very confidential, which when they were published by the Italian journalist, whose name I now forget, in book form, were really devastating, because they gave us a very sharp light into what was going on at the top of the Vatican, and it wasn’t a very good light either. It just simply demonstrated there was a huge amount of conflict going on over the present secretary of state, who is very contested, very controversial.

Robert Mickens: In August, the Vatican released a large report which was the indictment and some other things. They had had psychologists, magistrates, others, question this man, who remained in custody for over 50-some days. And they released the report and announced that they would put him on trial.

Journalist (archival): Marco Politi, the author of a biography of the pope, says he believes the butler wasn’t acting alone.

Marco Politi (archival): The butler has the knife, but he’s not the mastermind of the plot. It is clear that there is not only one man but a group of monseigneurs and employees of the Vatican who are following a line of underground opposition to the secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone.

Robert Mickens: On the 13th of August in that report we were told for the very first time that the butler was not the only one arrested, not the only one involved. There was a second man, a computer technician who works in the secretariat of state, which is the main office in the Vatican. And on August 13 they announced that these two men would go on trial: the butler for aggravated theft and the computer technician for aiding and abetting the butler.

When the trial opened in September, the computer technician did not come to his trial. His attorney asked that he be tried separately, a motion that was granted by the panel of three judges that ran the trial. And the butler went on trial over four sessions. He was found guilty of aggravated theft. He was then sentenced at the end of September to three years of incarceration. The judges dropped it to 18 months because they said his intention was to help the pope—that’s what he believed—and also because he’d never had a criminal record and never done anything like this before, had never been accused of any crime.

Annabelle Quince: And the people that tried the butler, the judges, were they part of the Vatican City or did they come from the Italian judiciary?

Robert Mickens: No, Vatican City. They’re Italians—this is all very Italian—but no, they are judges in the Vatican tribunal.

His lawyers decided not to appeal the sentence but the Vatican prosecution still has another 30 days, I believe, to appeal and they would probably ask for a stronger sentence. There is a possibility that the pope at any moment could step in, and could have at any moment stepped in, in this trial and pardoned the butler.

Journalist (archival): Ahead of the verdict, Mr Gabriele said he didn’t see himself as a thief, because he acted out of love for the church. He denies the theft charge, but admits photocopying documents and betraying the pope’s trust.

Robert Mickens: One of the things you have to do also is situate this into the context of a very, very old Italian system of… I won’t call it mafia—mafia’s a bit too strong—but the mafia survives and thrives in Italy because of the tight family network these medieval kind of societies had to live on. You couldn’t just turn to anybody; you had to turn to someone that you can trust. You’d turn to someone in your family.

Within the Vatican you don’t take tests to get a job there; it’s who you know. They don’t set up a… announce a job opening and people go and take a written exam. And they don’t put this up for grabs in that sense; they turn to a cardinal and ask him if he has someone that he knows that’s reliable that knows anything about running a bakery. And that’s how they find their personnel. In this type of system, when people get their jobs because of a favour or because of somebody that they know—not meaning that this in itself is corrupt, that they’re incompetent, but they’re beholden on a system of favouritism, of connectedness.

John Pollard: Well, they are politics. I mean, these men are arguably good and holy men, but they’re still men—and remember they are all men and there are very few women in the central bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, very, very few indeed—and they have the same passions and they have the same vices and virtues as other men and there are frequently bitter tussles, bitter disputes, within, inside the Vatican, which of course the Vatican tries very hard to keep under wraps. Unfortunately it failed because of the revelations that proceeded from the butler’s removal of documents.

Annabelle Quince: The second man, the computer person…

Robert Mickens: Computer technician.

Annabelle Quince: …do we know what’s happened to him?

Robert Mickens: Yes, he will go on trial for aiding and abetting the butler on the 5th of November. We expect that’s going to be a swift trial and that he’s going to get off lightly.

Annabelle Quince: Robert Mickens, Rome correspondent for The Tablet. My other guests today were John Pollard, fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, and Catholic historian and broadcaster, Paul Collins.

A transcript and podcast of this program is available on the web site:

I’m Annabelle Quince and this is Rear Vision on RN. Thanks as always for joining us.

Robert Mickens
Rome Correspondent for the Tablet - An International Catholic Weekly
Dr John Pollard
Fellow of Trinity Hall at Cambridge University and specialises in the History of Italy and the Papacy in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s.
Paul Collins
Catholic Historian and Broadcaster.
Presenter Annabelle Quince