He died, one Jesuit said, ‘like a flower in the field that closes at night’. Some time in the evening of 28 September 1978 Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, abandoned his tenure of the throne of St Peter. He had been Pope for only 33 days. The news was entirely unexpected. Unlike his predecessor, John Paul had shown no signs of ill-health during his brief reign, and very soon it began to be rumoured that he had been poisoned. Having inadvertently landed themselves with the wrong man for the job, a man who seemed to be about to sanction birth control and who had once remarked that God was more of a mother than a father, the Curia, it was said, had removed him by the traditional means – the only means open to them. Most of these rumours were not, at first at least, meant to be taken very seriously. The behaviour of the Vatican hierarchy, like that of the Government of Italy, is frequently an object of ridicule – or of shame – to most of those who are compelled to live with it. But there certainly were some peculiar circumstances surrounding John Paul’s death. The cause of death was given as ‘myocardial infarction’ – heart failure – but this diagnosis was supported only by an external examination carried out by Renato Buzzonetti, deputy head of the Vatican health service, a man who, on his own admission, had little knowledge of the Pope’s previous medical history and who seems to have refused to put his name to any death certificate.
Myocardial infarction, as Buzzonetti must have known, can only be properly diagnosed by an autopsy. The Vatican embalmers had been summoned in the early hours of the morning, presumably so that they could go to work before anyone asked for an autopsy: but John Paul’s body was in fact first put on display at noon in its natural state. Because someone in the Vatican believed that an autopsy might become inescapable? In the event, no autopsy was performed and when embalming began, at six that evening, the embalmers were instructed not to remove any blood from the body, something which considerably complicated their task, and which Yallop darkly suggests was done because even a small quantity of blood ‘would have been sufficient for a forensic scientist to establish the presence of any poisonous substances’. Some of the Cardinals who had gathered in Rome now began to demand an autopsy – although by then the embalming fluid would have destroyed all evidence of poisoning – and on 1 October the conservative Corriere della Serra ran a frontpage article asking ‘in humble words why there was no autopsy’. The Church’s reply, that the Apostolic Convention of 1975 forbade autopsies being performed on dead Popes, turned out to be untrue. On the evening of 3 October, a group of 150 pilgrims from Luciani’s birthplace, who had been granted a private view of their dead compatriot, were suddenly hurried out of St Peter’s. Large crimson screens were then set up around the body, ‘preventing any onlooker who chanced to be within St Peter’s’ (chanced to be after the Basilica had been closed for nearly an hour?) ‘from seeing what they were doing’, and a team of doctors went to work on the body. What they did no one knows, but, Yallop says, ‘many believed’ them to have performed an autopsy – though why they should have done this at such a late stage and on an embalmed body he does not say. Faced with what the journalist Vittoria Zucconi called a ‘vast dissatisfaction with official sources’, the Curia made hurried preparations for the next Conclave. The voting began on 15 October and two days later the Church had another leader. It was, as the London Times said, ‘the Year of the Three Popes’.
That much, at least, is common knowledge. Yallop claims, however, and his claims have been fully substantiated by the witnesses he interviewed, that there were other mysterious circumstances surrounding Luciani’s death. John Paul was discovered by a nun, Sister Vincenza, at 4.45 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, Cardinal Jean Villot, the Vatican Secretary of State, arrived. He removed a bottle of medicine the Pope had been taking for low blood pressure, some papers that were clutched in his hands, his will from his study desk and, inexplicably, his slippers and glasses. None of these things has been seen again. When the Vatican’s official bulletin was issued at 7.27, the time of the death had been moved forward to 5.30 a.m. and it was now claimed that the body had been found by Father John Magee, one of the Pope’s private secretaries. Another bulletin also claimed that when he died, Luciani had had a copy of The Imitation of Christ in his hands. Later, however, the press was told that the Vatican was ‘now in a position to state’ that what Luciani had in fact been holding was ‘certain sheets of paper containing his personal writings such as homilies, speeches, reflections and various notes’. On hearing this, ‘some reporters openly laughed.’ What Yallop claims he was holding was something different again and, for Villot and his cronies, far less innocuous.
It all points, Yallop claims, to a massive, incompetently-orchestrated cover-up. Why did Buzzonetti give myocardial infarction as the cause of death when it is impossible to establish without an autopsy? Why was there no autopsy? Why was Luciani embalmed within 19 hours of his death when Italian law forbids embalming until 24 hours after death? (The Vatican, as a sovereign state, is not, it should be said, bound by Italian civil law.) What were the mysterious doctors doing behind their crimson screens? Above all, why did Villot seize Luciani’s papers, medicine, slippers, glasses and will? Yallop’s answer is simple. Some time on the night of 28 September the Pope was given a dose of something, probably digitalis, an odourless, colourless poison which produces the same symptoms as heart failure. Highly-placed members of the Curia, including Villot, either knew this or were themselves responsible and did their best to dispose of the evidence.
Why? Yallop’s contention is that the pious and saintly Luciani was not only rapidly becoming an embarrassment to the more conservative, and most powerful, members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with his liberal views on birth control, but that he had begun inquiries into the activities of the Istituto per le Opere Religiose, the Vatican’s bank. The papers he was supposedly clutching in his hand when he died, and which Villot was so eager to dispose of, contained a list of those Vatican officials whom Luciani intended to replace. These included, not only Villot himself, but also the American Bishop Paul Marcinkus, then head of the IOR.
All of the men on the supposed list stood to gain by the Pope’s sudden death. Any one of them could have arranged for him to be poisoned. Yallop’s line-up of potential culprits are Villot, Marcinkus and Cardinal John Cody, and three outsiders who had close financial connections with the Vatican, Michele Sindona, Roberto Calvi and Licio Gelli. With the exception of Villot and Cody, the notorious Cardinal of Chicago, who was believed to have ‘diverted’ up to one million dollars of public money to his lifelong friend Helen Wilson and to have slipped John Paul II a ‘personal’ gift of $50,000 on his arrival in Chicago in October 1979, these men were the stars of Italy’s most dramatic political and financial scandal: the affair of the Banco Ambrosiano of Milan and the Masonic Lodge called Propaganda 2.
Sindona, who during the Sixties and Seventies amassed a considerable private fortune (and a reputation for financial wizardry which earned him the American Club’s nomination for ‘Man of the Year’ in 1974) largely by laundering Mafia money, was appointed financial adviser to the Vatican by Paul VI. At the time the Vatican, presumably, had no knowledge of his criminal connections. Sindona used the resources of the IOR, which, as a foreign bank, ‘an offshore tax-haven in the middle of Rome’, was not subject to Italian tax and currency regulations nor liable to inspection by the Italian finance police, to take large sums of money out of Italy in a series of frauds which netted huge profits for him, his various associates and the IOR. In 1974, however, Sindona’s empire collapsed, in what has come to be called in Italy ‘II Crack Sindona’. II Crack brought down banks all over Europe and, more seriously for Sindona himself, the Franklin Bank in New York, whose losses cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $2 billion. According to Swiss ‘bank watchers’, the Vatican lost about $240 million, although at the time Marcinkus said that the IOR ‘hadn’t lost a cent’. The Italian authorities immediately began extradition proceedings. These dragged on for years largely because Sindona’s lawyers – and Sindona’s hit-men, who disposed of one key witness in assassinating Giorgio Ambrosli, liquidator of Sindona’s aptly-named Banca Privata Italiana – succeeded in keeping much of the evidence from reaching the courts. In 1977, however, a Federal Grand Jury began its investigation into Sindona’s involvement in the Franklin Bank.
Sindona’s mind now seems to have become unhinged. In July 1979 he broke his $3 million bail in New York and had himself kidnapped so that he could return to Italy. His motive, or so Yallop says he now says, was to overthrow the government of Sicily. Once the island had become an independent republic he, as its first president, would offer it to the United States Government as the 51st state of the Union, on condition that all criminal charges against him be dropped. It was crucial to Sindona’s increasingly lunatic attempts to exculpate himself of any criminal responsibility for the collapse of the Franklin Bank, and to avoid being extradited, that the IOR should refuse to disclose the nature of its involvement in his former empire. So long as Marcinkus and his friends were in control, the Vatican would, as indeed it did, refuse to acknowledge that it had had any but the most trivial of dealings with him. But if Marcinkus had been removed, a successor appointed by John Paul I would have been far more likely to co-operate with the Italian and American authorities. As it was, the Federal Grand Jury, without the benefit of assistance from the IOR, found him guilty in March 1980 on 65 counts, and he is today serving a 25-year jail sentence.
Sindona’s successor as the Vatican’s financial adviser was the director of the Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, who ended his life in 1982 hanging by his neck from Blackfriars Bridge. Calvi’s financial operations, like those of Sindona with whom he had close, and frequently uncomfortable, relations, involved the use of IOR as a means of exporting currency to a number of off-shore holding companies in Panama. The IOR owned 16 per cent of the shares in the Banco Ambrosiano and a good many of the Panamanian companies. The profits to the Church from this enterprise – and it was not the only one in which Calvi and the IOR was involved – averaged out, according to Yallop, at some two million dollars per year. But Calvi’s operations, like Sindona’s, grew ever more perilous until, finally, a $1.3 billion hole appeared in the Ambrosiano Group. In July 1981 he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a fine of 16 billion lire. He was released on bail pending an appeal and reconfirmed as director of the bank. There he remained, the only convicted criminal ever to head a major bank, until his journey to London the following year. Like Sindona, Calvi had much to lose by the sudden removal of his colleagues at the IOR. Had Luciani been able to act in 1978, information about Calvi’s and the Vatican’s involvement in the ‘Panamanian triangle’ might have become available at precisely the moment the Bank of Italy began its investigations into the operations of the Banco Ambrosiano.
The most extraordinary of Yallop’s potential culprits, the spider at the centre of the Sindona-Calvi web, is Licio Gelli. Gelli, former Oberleutnant in the SS, former Communist spy and CIA agent, the man who helped Klaus Barbie to escape and Peron to return to power in Argentina in 1973, was the creator and Grand Master of Propaganda 2. P2 was ostensibly started as a virulent anti-Communist organisation. In this capacity it has been associated with, among other right-wing terrorist bomb attacks, what in Italy is now always referred to as the ‘Massacre’ at Bologna station in 1980. It has also, though Yallop does not mention it, been linked with the killing of Aldo Moro, whose support of the ‘historic compromise’ with the Communist Party was supposedly seen by Gelli as the thin end of a very long wedge which might one day lead to the meeting of what Moro had once called the ‘convergent parallels’ of Italian political life. But Gelli’s principal business was information. P2 included among its members some of the most highly placed men in Italy and thus constituted a vast network of sources of information which, since only Gelli had access to all of them, placed enormous effective power at his disposal. Both Calvi and Sindona were members of P2 and both contributed extensively to Gelli’s financial activities. In May 1981, P2 was exposed in a blaze of publicity which kept every newspaper and television station in Italy busy for months, brought down the Government, and ultimately led to the election of the first non-Christian Democrat prime minister since the war. The following year Gelli was arrested in Switzerland but after a dramatic escape from Champ Dollon prison fled to Uruguay.
All of this is well-known. Much of what Yallop says about the involvement of the IOR with Sindona and Calvi could have been taken from the articles which L’Espresso and its sister newspaper the Rome daily La Repubblica have been running every since II Crack. The activities of Gelli and the P2 have been as thoroughly exposed over the last two years as they perhaps ever will be. What Yallop adds to the story, from sources he cannot name, is a day-by-day account of what went on inside the Vatican in September and October 1978 and a record of several supposedly private conversations between those involved. Like all good books, In God’s Name is not short of conversations and pictures. What it lacks, however, is anything by way of hard evidence.
Each of the men accused had a motive for killing Luciani (only Villot’s remains a little obscure), and although, as Yallop tells us in his lumpen prose, ‘to establish murder it is not essential to establish a motive ... it helps as any experienced police officer will confirm.’ In this case, however, motive is not merely a help, it is the only thing Yallop has to go on, and the presence of a motive is not sufficient to prove that a murder has been committed – as any experienced police officer will confirm. All of Yallop’s evidence is also, as he admits, circumstantial. However, ‘when dealing with murder, the evidence is frequently circumstantial.’ Perhaps – but rarely as circumstantial as some of this. Yallop favours Gelli as the principal suspect because, when communicating with Calvi, Gelli used the code-name ‘Luciani’ (did he really?) and once attributed all his problems to ‘the priests’, from which Yallop infers that he meant only one priest. Marcinkus is implicated because on the morning of the 29th he arrived at the Vatican at an unusually early hour, and so on.
Yallop’s inquiry is curiously inconsistent where it can least afford to be. Villot, he tells us, was eager to retire from his post as Secretary of State. Why then should he have committed murder in order to retain that position? Yallop suggests that the reason Villot removed Luciani’s glasses and slippers was (or may have been) because they bore traces of vomiting, which, he says, is one of the symptoms of digitalis poisoning. But Sister Vicenza apparently saw no signs of vomiting. Nor is it likely that a vomiting dying man would have continued to hold onto the papers which all agree Luciani had in his hands when he was found. Buzzonetti is said to have confirmed the cause of death on insufficient evidence, yet Yallop himself quotes him as saying only that Luciani died ‘a sudden death which could be related to myocardial infarction’ (my italics). Then there is the story of the alarm. At one point Yallop says that there were rumours circulating within the Vatican that the Pope’s alarm light had been on all night and no one had noticed. But later we are told that Luciani’s death ‘was so sudden, so immediate that he did not even have time to press the alarm bell a few inches from his hand’. The experts whom Yallop consulted in Rome informed him that death from myocardial infarction is rarely ‘so quick that an individual does not take any action’. Rare perhaps, but certainly not unheard of. Death from digitalis poisoning, on the other hand, is never instantaneous, particularly if, as Yallop suggests, it is preceeded by vomiting. There are other similarly worrying remarks. Yallop claims that he twice entered the Santa Anna Gate (the public entrance into the Vatican) without once being challenged. If that is so, then two Swiss guards and two other Vatican officials were otherwise engaged at the time. Much of Yallop’s information also comes from people who were close to John Paul on the day before his death. The key witnesses of the discovery of the body, John Magee and Sister Vincenza, spoke to the author at some length (although he does not say whether he submitted his text for their approval) and are duly thanked in the acknowledgements. Both are loyal subjects of the Church, and neither seems to have been conscious of ‘covering up’ a carefully-conceived Vatican plan.
Italy, of course, thrives on conspiracy theories. Behind every honest facade there is believed, usually rightly, to be a far from honest truth. The study of what lies behind such façades – a genre to which In God’s Name belongs – has now acquired a descriptive label: dietrologia, it is called – the logic of what lies dietro, behind. Politics, on both sides of the Tiber, thrives on misinformation. Faced with a legislature so complex and partial, and a government so openly corrupt that corruption and partiality are taken to be the norm, every citizen is compelled to fabricate his own social reality. No one knows what is really going on and many suspect that there is nothing. Government, as the Far Left insists, is itself a form of conspiracy. To those who practise dietrologia, the daily round of scandals and intrigues also serves a higher end, a meta-scandal: it makes the practice of politics a denial of any kind of political culture. By such devices politics, like football – and in Italy the two are often indistinguishable – is made into a mere spectator sport. To those less inclined to believe in the high degree of organisation and consensus necessary to realise such strategies, the explanation for Italy’s civil condition lies perhaps elsewhere: in the nation’s divided past, in the failure of Rome to provide a national capital, in the pervasion of the government machine and of the Christian Democrat Party by the men from the South with their tribal view of political loyalties, in the failure of any of the political parties to dismantle fully the Fascist state. All of these problems apply mutatis mutandis to the world’s last city-state. The Vatican may be independent, but it stands on the same political soil as the rest of Italy. It survives, an anachronism, largely because the Christian Democrat Party relies on it heavily for support. And, as the present socialist-led government’s recent abolition of a state religion indicates, its hold on the Party is already beginning to slip. And because it shares in the ideology of dietrologia and is conscious of its position as the repository of moral convictions it cannot itself sustain, its leaders are prone, even more than the men in the Quirinale, to deliberate, and often unnecessary, obfuscation. What Yallop labels ‘Vatican paranoia’ pervades every aspect of its dealings with the outside world.
David Yallop is not a ‘Vaticanologist’ (though he is, or was, a Catholic): he is a professional investigator of apparently unresolved murders. He has no knowledge of Italian and no understanding of the complex culture within which the extraordinary events he so woodenly describes were enacted; and his occasional observations on the ‘national character’ of the Italians, ‘the most voluble of races’, does little to inspire confidence in his intuitions. ‘When men conspire to cover up,’ he says, ‘it is inexorably because there is something to cover up.’ Even if he means ‘inevitably’, the statement is by no means incontrovertible. Men may, for instance, believe that there is something to cover up without being quite certain what it is. Yallop himself records that a ‘Cardinal residing in Rome’ told him that Villot believed that Luciani had inadvertently taken a lethal overdose of his medicine. But if this became known ‘no one would believe that His Holiness had taken it accidentally. Some would allege suicide, others murder.’ Yallop rejects this hypothesis on the grounds that Luciani was too conscientious a patient ever to have taken an overdose. But that is surely irrelevant. All that matters is Villot’s fear, not that the Pope was murdered or committed suicide, but that the outside world might believe that he had been. What may have made Villot cover up – if indeed that is what he was doing – is likely to have been far more complex than the simple wish to hide from the world the – to Yallop incontrovertible – fact that Luciani had been murdered. It may have been the desire to avert what the Church, since its earliest days, has always feared more than anything else: scandal. For it is scandal which opens up the ever-present but often ignored gap between the teachings of a late Roman mystery cult and the operations of a powerful political machine. Scandal, as every one of the Curia would have learnt at school, was the prime cause of the Reformation, and scandal could harm the Church far more than any financial loss.
We shall, of course, never know who, or what, killed John Paul I. The evidence has vanished for ever. As a consequence, Yallop’s book reads like an unsolved detective story garnished with moralising interludes and personal assertions. Although it is exciting enough when it describes the financial operations of Sindona and Calvi, and revealing about the behaviour of the Conclave, it reaches no real conclusion. So many other points could be constructed, Calvino-like, to fit the same evidence.