On the night of Monday, May 4, 1998, in Vatican territory, the bodies of the commander of the Swiss Guard, his wife, and a young lance corporal were found in the barracks of the picturesque force entrusted with protecting the pope. It was the worst bloodbath to take place in more than a century in the heart of the supreme authority of the world's one billion Catholics. Four hours later, the Vatican announced that the lance corporal, twenty-three-year-old Cédric Tornay, had shot the couple, then committed suicide in "a fit of madness" brought on by frustration with the unit's discipline -- a conclusion it reaffirmed after a nine-month internal inquiry.
But as John Follain's hard-hitting exposé shows, the official report was a travesty, a tissue of suppositions, contradictions, and omissions. Based on an exhaustive three-year investigation, City of Secrets reveals how the Vatican, the oldest and most secretive autocracy in the world, staged an elaborate plot to obstruct justice -- and hide the scandals it dared not confess.
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About the Author
John Follain has covered Italy and the Vatican as a correspondent for the Sunday Times since 1998. He is the author of the critically acclaimed titles A Dishonoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia's Threat to Europe, Jackal: The Secret Wars of Carlos the Jackal, and Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom written with Rita Cristofari and Zoya. He lives with his wife in Rome.
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City of Secrets
The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican
Shortly before noon on the day after the deaths at the Swiss Guard, I left my home in the historic center of Rome and set out down the Via dei Coronari, a narrow street of ancient palaces and ocher houses with flaking facades. The street owes its name to the coronari, or rosary makers, whose shops once lined its sides. From these well-placed vantage points, their owners could call out to the pilgrims who flowed into the city through its northern gateway, the Porta del Popolo, and made their way down the long cobbled street to the Vatican. Now smart antique stores have replaced the rosary makers, and the only mementos of the shops' former religious vocation are a few dilapidated shrines to the Virgin on street corners.
I had learned about the shootings from the radio that morning, and found out with a phone call to the Sala Stampa, the press office of the Holy See, that there would be a press conference that day. After crossing the river Tiber, I stopped to buy the newspapers and sat down on a tone bench on the monumental avenue called the Via della Conciliione. Flanked by imitation obelisks, the street was forged on orders from the Fascist dictator Mussolini to open up a grand perspective of St. Peter's, but at the cost of pulling down many ancient houses.
BLOOD IN THE VATICAN, headlined the newspaper La Repubblica, with the subheading Thriller in the Vatican. Even the usually staid Corriere della Sera announced: MASSACRE AT THE SWISS GUARD. A third, La Stampa, went for a more evocative title: THREE BODIES, AND A GUN, IN THE VATICAN.
The newspapers ascribed the deaths to an "act of madness" on the part of the young guard Cédric Tornay, or to jealousy and an illicit love affair between him and the commander's wife, Meza Romero. One writer referred vaguely to "peculiar aspects" of the relationships between the three; another saw the hand of a fanatical member of a sect intent on making its mark on the eve of the "Holy Year," which the pope had announced would take place in two years' time, and which would bring millions of pilgrims to Rome. In the four years I had lived and worked as a journalist in the city, no other event at the heart of the Catholic Church had prompted so many different interpretations in so short a time.
Outside the press office, television crews jostled for position to book the best view of St. Peter's Square, while in the austere lobby, journalists who were not accredited to the Vatican pleaded for admittance. Luckily, I had been through this some years earlier when I first arrived in Rome. As a correspondent for the Reuters news agency, I had been given a Vatican press card by the surly, bespectacled Sister Elisabetta, assistant to the pope's spokesman. Sitting under a framed cover of the Time magazine edition proclaiming John Paul "Man of the Year" for 1994, she had asked me to sign a promise to abide by "ethical standards." When I asked to see a list of these, she looked at me blankly through her heavy spectacles, saying there was no such thing. I should just sign; there was no alternative. Please bear in mind, she told me, that the way we operate is the fruit of two thousand years of history. So I signed. At least she didn't ask me for a recommendation from a clergyman, as the press office had required of journalists covering the Second Vatican Council, which overhauled the Church in the early 1960s.
There were still a few minutes to go before the start of the news conference, so from the front desk I picked up a copy of the Vatican's first pronouncement on the previous night. The statement was in slightly odd English, as if it had been hurriedly translated, and stamped with the papal tiara and the keys of St. Peter's:
The Captain Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Colonel Alois Estermann, was found dead in his home together with his wife Gladys Meza Romero and Vice corporal Cedric Tornay. The bodies were discovered shortly after 9pm by a neighbour from the apartment next-door who was attracted by loud noises. From a first investigation it is possible to affirm that all three were killed by a fire-arm. Under the body of the Vice corporal his regulation weapon was found. The information which has emerged up to this point allows for the theory of a 'fit of madness" by Vice corporal Tornay.
I checked the timing of the statement -- shortly after midnight on Tuesday, May 5, 1998. Only three hours after the deaths were discovered and before any autopsies were carried out, the Vatican had identified not only the culprit but also his state of mind at the time of the murders. And it was making no secret of its conclusions.
The statement was signed by the pope's spokesman, the sixty-one year-old Joaquin Navarro-Valls. The press office's Spanish director is a lay worker, but the absence of a weighty religious tide is no indication of inferiority A former newspaperman who wears his pink porphyry ring bearing his family's coat of arms as if it were a cardinal's seal of office, he wields more power than most princes of the Church, and carries himself accordingly. Smooth of appearance and of manner, with the rugged good looks of a Castilian nobleman, he has attracted the interest of several of the women journalists accredited to the Vatican. But he has never married, explaining curtly when asked why: "I haven't got the time."
Navarro-Valls likes to boast that 90 percent of Vatican stories in the world's media are based on information released by him. The journalists who report them, known as the vaticanisti, who, unlike me, are permanently based at the press office, retort that he sheds so little light on what really goes on behind the Vatican's walls that they often feel as if they're covering the Kremlin in the iciest days of Soviet rule.City of Secrets
The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican. Copyright © by John Follain. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.