Death of a Pope

    By Luis Granados | 28 September 2008
    God Experts

    Pope John Paul I’s body lies in state in St Peter’s Basilica, 1978. The behaviour of the authorities made a striking contrast to the way that the deaths of his predecessors had been handled for a century and more.

    Thirty years ago today, Pope John Paul I died in the Papal apartment. The Vatican claims that he died in his sleep, of a heart attack. Investigative reporters, especially David Yallop, have unearthed a number of facts suggesting otherwise. This anniversary provides a good opportunity to review some of those facts, many of which revolve around the activities of the Vatican Bank.

    The Vatican Bank was established with a massive sum ordered to be provided by the dictator Benito Mussolini in “payment” for the loss of Papal-owned territories 60 years earlier, when the inhabitants of those territories decided they would rather be part of a united Italy than continue to be ruled directly by the Pope. Its first director, a brilliant but unscrupulous financier named Bernardino Nogara, used those funds and others to control a substantial portion of Italian economic life, including the ownership of several banks, munitions factories, and Italy’s largest manufacturer of the contraceptive devices that were officially banned by the Church. The Church’s insatiable demand for funds, particularly to finance its attempts to influence European politics in the postwar era, led the Bank to seek even greater profits by engaging in illegal activities: evading Italian currency expatriation laws, laundering Mafia drug profits, and serving as a front for fraudulent securities schemes. In 1948, a Vatican official named Monsignor Edoardo Cippico was arrested and imprisoned for evading Italian currency controls through money-laundering operations at the Vatican Bank.

    Bishop Paul Marcinkus (shown with John Paul II)

    In 1968 Pope Paul VI selected as the Vatican’s chief financial advisor a man named Michele Sindona, a Mafia banker who was later convicted of fraud, theft, perjury, and murder. In 1973, Sindona helped arrange for the sale of the Banco Cattolica del Veneto, which had previously been owned by the Vatican, to the Banco Ambrosiano of Milan. The Cardinal of Venice was shocked and infuriated by this sale, for Banco Cattolica had for decades served as a “friendly” bank offering low-cost financial arrangements for the parishes of Venice. He immediately set out for Rome to demand a meeting with the Pope, in an attempt to undo the sale and to punish its perpetrators. He never got to see the Pope, though. He was shunted instead to Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the American who then ran the Vatican Bank, who not very politely replied “Eminence, don’t you have anything better to do?” “You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys,” Marcinkus is often quoted as saying. Intensely frustrated, the Cardinal closed all diocesan accounts at Banco Cattolica, and wrote an angry letter to its new Board demanding it remove the word “Cattolica” from its name.

    Banco Ambrosiano was run by Roberto Calvi, who was deeply involved with Marcinkus and Sindona in a number of illegal schemes. The press dubbed him “God’s Banker.” Marcinkus served on the Board of Directors of one of Calvi’s shell subsidiaries in the Caribbean, and Marcinkus cooperated in a scam to make it appear that the Vatican Bank provided a large proportion of Banco Ambrosiano’s capital, when in fact Calvi was illegally using depositors’ funds to buy back Ambrosiano shares on the Milan stock market to preserve his own control.

    By the late 1970s, the illegal activities of Sindona, Calvi, and the Vatican Bank were not a well-kept secret. Italian and even American investigators were sniffing around, getting closer and closer to the truth. Even the Italian financial press was publishing editorials asking for the Pope to impose “order and morality” on his Bank, a secretive institution that according to Calvi controlled over $10 billion of assets. The one airtight protection they had was the fact that the Vatican Bank operated inside the Vatican compound, which despite comprising only 108 acres is treated as a separate “country” whose institutions are not subject to the laws of Italy. Italy therefore had no authority to examine the records of the Bank. Warrants were issued at different times for the arrest of Archbishop Marcinkus and two other senior Vatican Bank officials, but so long as they remained within the compound (as they did) there was nothing the Italian government could do. Even when Marcinkus once offered to give a videotaped deposition (as a “character witness”) for Michele Sindona, the Vatican forbade the proceeding only hours before it was to commence. The only thing that could go wrong would be for the Pope to order a housecleaning at the Vatican Bank, which Pope Paul VI certainly had no intention of doing.

    The unraveling began on August 6, 1978, when Paul VI died. The College of Cardinals surprised everyone, especially Archbishop Marcinkus, in choosing a dark horse candidate as his replacement. It selected Albino Luciani, the Cardinal of Venice, whose favorite local bank Marcinkus, Sindona, and Calvi had spirited away just five years earlier. He took the name John Paul I.

    Luciani was known as a kindly man, but he was not a forgetful man. Even if he had been, his memory might have been spurred when immediately after taking office he received a circular from Italy’s Office of Exchange Control warning of illegal activities involving transfers to the “foreign” Vatican Bank to violate the nation’s currency laws. According to Yallop’s sources, Luciani quickly ordered an investigation of the Vatican Bank, and on the evening of September 28, 2008, after only 33 days on the job, he reviewed final drafts of documents approving sweeping changes, including the immediate replacement of Marcinkus.

    That same evening Luciani also took a call from his long-time personal physician and friend, Dr. Da Ros, to arrange a routine visit the following week. Luciani told Da Ros he was feeling fine.

    The next morning, Luciani was found dead. The changes at the Vatican Bank did not happen.

    The circumstances of Luciani’s death would baffle even Agatha Christie. First, the Vatican announced that the Pope’s secretary, Father Magee, had found the body. But Sister Vincenza, who handled the Pope’s housekeeping, insisted that she had found it. In doing so, she was violating a curious order from the Secretary of State that the entire Papal household was to maintain a vow of silence on all events surrounding what was supposed to the Pope’s natural death. Six years later, Father Magee admitted that he had lied, and that Sister Vincenza had told the truth.

    All medicine containers were cleaned out of the Papal apartments. So were all papers. These included not only the papers Yallop’s sources say the Pope was working on, but even papers like the Pope’s will. None of the medicine bottles or papers has ever been located. The Vatican claimed that the Pope was not working on papers, but instead reading a favorite book, The Imitation of Christ, in bed when he died. This cannot be, however, because he had left his copy of the book back in Venice; his assistant had only a few days earlier had to borrow a copy of the book from the Vatican library when the Pope wished to quote from it, and had returned it to the library before the Pope’s death.

    The Vatican also described how peacefully Luciani had died; he was found sitting up in bed, book in hand, with a slight smile on his face. An independent doctor later presented with that statement responded that “Dead bodies do not sit up smiling and reading in death. People have been known to die in their sleep, but I have never known, or seen, anybody die in this way in the middle of an activity like reading. I find it really hard to believe that he would be reading one moment and dead the next.”

    The press also gave dramatic descriptions of how the Secretary of State had followed tradition by taking the Papal “Fisherman’s Ring” from Luciani’s hand and then smashing it to pieces. However, Luciani had served as Pope for so little time that his Fisherman’s Ring had not even been crafted yet.

    No autopsy was performed on the body, as would have been required by law had the death occurred under the jurisdiction of Italian law, and as was repeatedly called for by the Roman press and a number of Cardinals. At least, none that the Vatican will admit. The night before the funeral, a group of pilgrims from Luciani’s hometown, many of whom had known him personally, was invited to a private viewing of the body in St. Peters’. But when they arrived they were prevented from doing so for nearly two hours while unknown persons, allegedly including medical personnel, were doing something around the coffin behind a screen in the midst of the Basilica; then they were turned away altogether. The Vatican claims it was just embalmers checking the condition of the body, but that process takes only a few minutes, and the embalmers whom the Vatican insists were doing the checking deny they were there.

    The embalmers, in fact, at one point told reporters they were summoned to the Vatican at 5:00 am – well before the body was supposed to have been found.

    Later they said they were confused, and could no longer remember what time they were called. If in fact the Pope had been murdered by criminals in league with Sindona, Marcinkus, and/or Calvi, it is not hard to picture them suggesting to the embalmers that a little forgetfulness could be beneficial for their health.

    Despite the lack of an official autopsy, the Vatican’s Dr. Buzzonetti signed a certificate stating the cause of death to be a heart attack, and that death had occurred at 11:00 pm. Medical professionals, however, are virtually unanimous in the view that it is impossible to reach such a conclusion without more of an examination than Dr. Buzzonetti performed, especially for someone with no history of heart trouble, a recent problem-free EKG, and a hobby of climbing mountains. Medical professionals also find it incredible that death could have occurred so suddenly that the Pope would not have been able to press an emergency call button only a few inches away, installed exactly for emergencies like this.

    Only thirty-three days after his election, Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani, died in strange circumstances.

    Would anyone really have had the audacity to murder the Pope? We know that when the Italian prosecutor Emilio Alessandrini began investigating the Ambrosiano/Vatican Bank connections, he was gunned down in the streets. When his work was picked up by Giorgio Ambrosoli, he was murdered in the streets as well, on the order of Vatican financial advisor Michele Sindona. Sindona even attempted to arrange the assassination of an American district attorney, John Kenney. Enrico Cuccia, head of a state-controlled merchant bank who refused to bail out Banco Ambrosiano, had his house firebombed. When the net closed in on Roberto Calvi, and there was a risk he could cut a deal for himself by telling what he knew, he was murdered also, in a manner disguised to look like suicide. Michele Sindona was murdered by cyanide poisoning while in prison, according to some accounts after he promised to start telling what he knew in exchange for a lighter sentence. Leaders of Italy’s secret “P2” society, in which Sindona and Calvi were heavily involved, were even convicted of bombing a Bologna railway station in 1980 to spur a reaction against Italy’s leftist parties – 85 innocent persons were killed.

    Murdering a goody two-shoes Pope would not have troubled these men in the slightest. Indeed, they would have been carrying on a venerable tradition. Pope John VIII was poisoned in 882 by members of his entourage; the potion took so long to work that they gave up and clubbed him to death. Fourteen years later Pope Formosus I was poisoned. After he was buried, his enemies (including his mother) dug up his corpse, placed it upright on a chair, and judged it in a trial presided over by the new Pope, Stephen VI. As charges against Formosus were recited, a clerk speaking on behalf of the cadaver duly admitted all wrongdoing. He was convicted. A ceremony followed in which the body was stripped of the pontifical vestments, to which putrefying flesh was still clinging, and the fingers of his right hand, with which he had blessed the people, were chopped off. Then the body was tossed into the river. For some reason, no Pope since then has wanted to be called Formosus II. Later, though, Stephen VI himself was overthrown by a mob, imprisoned, and strangled to death. In the 10th century, Pope John X was poisoned by his mistress’s daughter; Pope Benedict VI was also poisoned, as was Pope John XIV. In the 11th century it was the turn of Pope Sylvester II, known as “the Magician” for his alleged dealings with the devil. In 1503 Alexander VII, the notorious Borgia Pope, is thought to have died of poison intended for another.

    Was the Vatican Bank really involved in activities as unsavory as those alleged? No one knows, since no independent investigation has ever been allowed. We do know that Marcinkus continued to do business with Calvi even after Calvi was convicted of financial crimes. “Without the complicity of the Vatican bank,” said one Italian investigator, “Calvi would not have been able to do what he did.” We know that the son of Luigi Mennini, the managing director of the Vatican Bank, was a rising star at Ambrosiano. We know that after the failure of Banco Ambrosiano, without admitting wrongdoing or opening its books to outside investigators, the Vatican headed off an investigation of the Vatican Bank’s role by “voluntarily” forking over $250 million to the depositors. We also know that on the third anniversary of Luciani’s death, Pope John Paul II promoted Marcinkus to the job of running the entire civil government of Vatican City.

    There was certainly a motive, certainly a predisposition to kill, certainly an easy opportunity to penetrate the Vatican – at the time of the Luciani’s election 33 days before his death, reporters filed stories expressing concern about how lax the security was around the Vatican. Three weeks before the Pope’s death, a Roman newspaper had published a detailed floor plan, complete with photograph, of the Papal apartments. Luciani fired the two valets responsible for allowing the photographs to be distributed; they left angrily, one of them refusing to return his keys for several days, during which they could easily have been copied.

    And there is certainly inexplicable confusion about simple facts like how and when the body was found, when the embalmers were called, where all the papers went, why a gag order was placed on all household personnel, and how a healthy man of 65 could die too quickly to be able to press his emergency call button.

    Most of all though, there is the lack of an autopsy. The Vatican lamely explains that it just never permits autopsies when Popes die – a false statement, since we know there was an autopsy after the death of Pius VIII in the 19th century, when poisoning was suspected. When more recent Popes have died, they have been so old and frail that the wonder was how they were able to hang on as long as they did; that was certainly not the case with Luciani.

    Forensic pathologists are able to do some amazing things nowadays with corpses that have been buried a very long time. Just this year, nasty rumors that Napoleon had died of arsenic poisoning were laid to rest by an examination of hair samples taken from different points of his life. Wouldn’t the 30th anniversary of Luciani’s death be an appropriate time for the Vatican to allow his body to be exhumed for an independent investigation?

    Luis Granados is the director of Humanist Press, the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, and the author of Damned Good Company: Twenty Rebels Who Bucked the God Experts. He writes the Rules Are for Schmucks column for

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    1. At the time of Luciani’s election, 33 days before his death, reporters filed stories expressing concern about how lax the security was around the Vatican.

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