Pope tries to get his own house in order

ROME -- Fresh off approving a sweeping overhaul of America’s main umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders, Pope Benedict XVI this week turned to getting his own house in order by creating a panel of three veteran cardinals to investigate the tawdry recent Vatican leaks scandal.

The Vatican announced yesterday that Benedict has created a new Commission of Cardinals “to undertake an authoritative investigation” and “to throw light on these episodes,” which it characterized as “recent leaks of reserved and confidential documents on television, in newspapers and in other communications media.”

The commission is led by Spanish Cardinal Julián Herranz, 82, formerly the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. It also includes Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, 88, a former prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Italian Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgi, 81, who resigned in 2006 as the archbishop of Palermo.

Because Herranz is a member of Opus Dei, Italy’s most influential daily, Corriere della Sera, ran the news under a headline proclaiming, “A detective of Opus Dei against the ravens in the Vatican.” (“Ravens” has become standard argot for the leakers, and has roughly the same sense in Italian as “snakes” in English.)

The Vatican leaks scandal erupted in late January, when Italian news outlets published confidential letters alleging corruption and cronyism in Vatican finances written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Today the pope’s ambassador in the United States, Viganò was the number two official in the government of the Vatican city state at the time the letters were written.

The scandal gathered steam in February with leaks of other documents, including materials concerning the Institute for the Works of Religion, popularly known as the “Vatican Bank”; the reopening of the tomb of a mafia don possibly linked to the 1983 disappearance of a teenage girl whose family lived inside the Vatican walls; and an alleged plot to kill the pope. Still another round of leaks featured confidential letters about an attempted Vatican take-over of an important Italian Catholic university and hospital system.

Collectively, the cascade of leaks created impressions of administrative disarray in the Vatican, as well as political axes being ground.

Who exactly leaked the documents, and why, remains unknown, although most observers believe that ecclesial opponents may have been attempting to discredit the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. If so the effort seems to have failed, as there’s been no indication that Benedict XVI intends to depose Bertone, his former aide in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Two official investigations of the leaks have already been launched, one by a Vatican tribunal and the other by the Secretariat of State, in addition to an informal probe by the Congregation of Bishops. The new Commission of Cardinals, however, is the highest-level inquest and will report directly to the pope.

The choice of three cardinals over eighty is significant because it means they have no roles within any Vatican department, either as officials or as members. Theoretically that avoids a conflict of interest, since they won’t be investigating any office to which they have direct ties.

Herranz has worked in the Vatican in various capacities since 1960 and Tomko since 1962, so between them they have 102 years of Vatican experience. Though never a Vatican official, De Giorgi has served as a member of various Vatican departments and is a veteran of the Italian church scene, which is relevant given that Italian ecclesiastical rivalries are widely presumed to be part of the background to the recent scandals.

The Vatican statement yesterday indicated that the three cardinals met for the first time on April 24 “to establish the method and timetable” for their work, but didn’t provide any information on the results of that discussion.

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