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What the police chief’s resignation tells us about the Vatican power struggle

Domenico Giani (2-R), performs a joint inspection with representatives of the Italian gendarmerie and members of the Colombian Police (Getty)

It has become apparent over the past couple of weeks that there is a major power struggle underway in the Vatican

Things took an interesting turn here at the Vatican yesterday, in connection with a major financial scandal involving current and former officials of the Secretariat of State and the Holy See’s financial institutions and watchdogs, offices of which were raided earlier this month by the Vatican police.

In the middle of Monday afternoon, the Press Office of the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of 57-year-old Domenico Giani, who had been the commander of the Corps of Gendarmes — the Vatican police force — since 2006, having joined the force in 1999.

The resignation came in the wake of a leaked service order with the names and faces of five Vatican officials suspended pending investigation into suspicious transactions connected to a €200 million real estate deal involving a Sloane Street commercial development in London. Four of the five persons were barred from entry to the city state. The other, a cleric, resides in the Casa Santa Marta.

The reason given for the resignation was the damage done to the image of the Corps and the reputations of the five individuals identified in the order. The five officials are suspended pending investigation. They are not charged with any crime, nor is it clear that the real estate deal under investigation involved wrongdoing of any sort, let alone criminal behaviour. “[A]lthough the Commander bears no personal responsibility in the unfolding of the events,” the Press Office statement reads, “Domenico Giani has tendered his resignation to the Holy Father out of love for the Church and faithfulness to Peter’s Successor.”

The order was posted in every guardhouse at every entrance to Vatican City, with both the Gendarmes and the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

The statement from the Press Office of the Holy See recalls Giani’s “twenty years of unquestionable faithfulness and loyalty,” and says Pope Francis in meeting with Giani to discuss the development, “thanked him for the extreme competence shown in the performance of his many sensitive tasks, also at international level, and for the undisputed professionalism he has brought to the Vatican Gendarmerie.”

Six minutes after the official release announcing Giani’s resignation, the Press Office sent an email blast with the transcript of a full-length interview with the former commander, conducted by the former Director ad interim of the Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti. “The release of this document,” Giani explained, “has certainly trampled on the dignity of these [five] people [named].” He went on to say, “I too, as Commander, felt ashamed of what happened and of the suffering I caused to these people.”

“For this reason,” Giani continued, “having always said and testified to being ready to sacrifice my life to defend that of the Pope: with this same spirit I made the decision to resign my commission, so as not to damage the image and activity of the Holy Father in any way. And this, assuming that ‘objective responsibility’, which only a commander can feel.”

Cmdr Giani studied pedagogy at the prestigious University of Siena, with a concentration in social psychology. He graduated with honours before entering service in Italy’s Guardia di Finanza — the treasury police — where he rose through the ranks to become an officer. He left the treasury to join Italy’s SISDE, one of the secret services responsible for domestic intelligence.

News reports have mentioned the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, in connection with the real estate deal reportedly at the centre of the investigation. The cleric under suspension, Mgr Mauro Carlino, worked under Becciu when Becciu was Sostituto for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State. The deal was done during Becciu’s tenure as Sostituto. The prefect was quoted as telling Italy’s Mediaset at the weekend, “Unfortunately, inside the Vatican the sense of loyalty and fidelity to institutions is failing.” He went on to warn that, “If we tear ourselves apart and attack each other, we will lose the sense of being the Church amid hatred and power struggles.”

Intended or not, the statement was as close to a frank admission of something that has become apparent over the past couple of weeks: there is a major power struggle underway in the Vatican, symptomatic of dysfunction more grave and deeply entrenched than even the actors in the drama previously realized.