BARBARA SMOKER digs up an old Vatican gangster (4/2006)

D e a t h  o f  the  P o p e' s  P e t  G o r i l l a


ARCHBISHOP Paul Casimir Marcinkus died on February 20th in Sun City, near Phoenix, Arizona. You don't remember him? During his 18 years as president of the Vatican bank, Instituto per le Opere di Religione (Institute of Religious Works, or IOR), which manages the financial investments of the Vatican, Marcinkus was regarded as the second most powerful man in the most powerful Church in the world.

He was born in 1922 in Cicero, a slum sector of Chicago, of impecunious Catholic immigrants from Lithuania. They were neighbours of Al Capone, so young Paul grew up among gangsters. But he was a bright boy, and decided to study for the priesthood. Ordained in 1947 - the year Capone died and got a Catholic funeral - Marcinkus spent three years working as a simple curate in a Chicago parish, then moved to Rome, to study theology and canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and was granted a doctorate. In 1952 he took a holiday job in the Vatican Secretariat of State, where he struck up a close friendship with Giovanni Montini, who was to become Pope Paul VI.

After brief secondments to Bolivia and Canada, Marcinkus returned to Rome. When Giovanni, after five years' delay waiting for the elderly John XXIII to die, finally ascended the throne of St Peter in 1963, he promoted his young friend to the Vatican Diplomatic Service, where Marcinkus - having fluent Italian, French and Spanish, as well as English and Lithuanian - made himself useful as the Pope's interpreter and translator, political adviser, and papal tour planner.

Standing at 6'4" and a burly 16 stone, he was known as "the Gorilla". His size and strength proved more than useful to Paul VI in November 1970, when, during a papal visit to Manila, Marcinkus saved the pontiff's life from the knife of a deranged would-be assassin.

Having thus won his spurs in the role of papal bodyguard, as well as a variety of other useful roles, which now included chief of security, Marcinkus was made the acting governor of Vatican City State - in charge of all its finances and administration, its newspaper, its radio station, and its 3,000 employees. Above all, the Pope appointed him to the Vatican Bank's top position; and, despite growing rumours of the extensive swindles in which he was involved, he retained that billet under the next pope but one, John Paul II, who consecrated him an archbishop in 1981.

The fact that Marcinkus and the Polish Pope were almost compatriots - both being Baltoslavs in an alien milieu, both hating the Soviet Union, and, unlike most of the prelates, both being keen on sport - no doubt stood him in good stead.

His liaisons, however, with two professional bankers led to his downfall - and that of the Vatican Bank. First there was the Sicilian "whiz-kid" banker Michele Sindona, and then the head of Banco Ambrosiano of Milan (Italy's largest private bank), Roberto Calvi, known as "God's banker" because of his association with Vatican finances.

The triumvirate was largely responsible for the huge
Italian banking scandals of the early 1980s, precipitating Mafio-Masonic murders and suicides (including those of two of the three) after the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in 1982 with losses amounting to $3.5 billion.

With characteristic insouciance, Marcinkus simply blamed his involvement on his inexperience of high finance: "My only previous experience was handling the Sunday collection".

He was indicted by the Milan authorities in 1982, but evaded arrest by John Paul II giving him sanctuary within the Vatican. There he remained holed up, unable to accompany the Pope on any more tarmac-kissing trips, nor even daring to set foot on Italian soil, for five years - when the arrest-warrant was quashed on the grounds that, under the 1929 Lateran Treaty, a Vatican official was immune from Italian jurisdiction. His one penalty, it seems, was to be denied the cardinal's red hat that he coveted.

Anyway, the swindles may not have been entirely his fault: when the Pope got him to send $50 million to Solidarity in Poland, did he enquire where the money had come from? And at least the frauds that Marcinkus perpetrated were not aimed at amassing a personal fortune for himself. But is the sacrifice of other people any less culpable for being in a good cause - even supposing the Catholic Church to be a good cause? It is the old ethical question of the end justifying the means.

Faced with assessed debts of $1.4 billion, the Vatican finally (in 1984) agreed to repay $224 million to-the 120 creditors of Banco Ambrosiano, as "recognition of moral involvement" in their losses - though Marcinkus opposed even this amount of restitution. Later he commented: "The Vatican didn't have to put out a cent; and when you
have to knock down your capital it hurts." Besides, paying up was almost an admission of guilt.

Marcinkus is also quoted as saying, after his return to America in 1990, "I may be a lousy banker, but at least I am not in jail." One wonders if he believed in hell.

He was almost certainly implicated in at least two suicides - those of Calvi's  young secretary and of banker Michele Sindona. (When Sindona drank a cyanide-laced coffee in his prison cell in 1986, it was probably suicide, though it could have been murder.) Also at least two murders - those of Pope John Paul I ("the smiling Pope"), who, just 33 days after his election in 1978, was found unexpectedly dead in bed, and, less directly, of Signor Roberto Calvi, who, four years later, was found hanging by the neck under Blackfriars Bridge.

It is also alleged that in 1984 Marcinkus ordered the assassination of the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov.

Only one month after being chosen by the Holy Spirit to ascend the papal throne, John Paul I ordered an audit of the Vatican Bank and was, it is thought, about to sack Marcinkus and blow the whistle on the burgeoning financial irregularities that he was horrified to discover he had inherited as pope. The nun who found him dead was instructed to lie about the details, and the Pope's body was quickly embalmed to forestall a post-mortem examination. All this circumstantial evidence was exposed by David Yallop in his best-seller In God's Name. My old friend Avro Manhattan, who lived in Kensington, also dashed off to Rome to carry out his own investigation, which contributed to his sensational book Murder in the Vatican.

For more than sixteen years, to the distress of the Calvi family (and the gratitude of the life assurance company), the Church and its cronies contrived to pass off the murder of "God's banker" as suicide - though that would obviously have been a physical impossibility. Then Calvi's body was exhumed,
and modern forensic technology proved that he was strangled before being strung up at Blackfriars in a Masonic rite. Four men are now in custody awaiting trial for his murder, and they had been hoping to subpoena Marcinkus as a defence witness.

In a crime novel, Killing Orders, by an American woman writer, Sara Paretsky, her arch-villain, Archbishop O'Faolin, is unmistakably based on Archbishop Marcinkus - even holding the same financial position in the Vatican. Both of them boost Vatican funds in criminal ways, including the forging of American bonds and the creation of overseas banks as
merry-go-round subsidiaries of the Vatican Bank. And, of course, the homicides.

The one difference between the actual and fictitious archbishops is that though each was born into Catholic immigrant families in Chicago, the name Marcinkus is Lithuanian while O'Faolin is Irish. However, that hardly seems a sufficient difference to enable Paretsky and her publishers to get away with manifest libel, in spite of the usual disclaimer on the book's copyright page - especially as Marcinkus was still very much alive in the Vatican at the time
the book was published in the mid-1980s. They presumably relied on the natural reluctance of the man and his Church to complain in court that the book's villain was too accurately taken from life!

At the time that Paretsky was presumably beginning work on the book, I wrote a long article for the June 1983 Freethinker about the murdered Roberto Calvi (whom she actually mentions by name) and his connection with Marcinkus, the real-life O'Faolin. It is reprinted in my collection Freethoughts (pages 95 to 102) *.

At the end of the Paretsky novel, the fictionalised archbishop is killed by a car-bomb. The real-life archbishop, on the other hand, has now died peacefully at the age of 84, in his nice retirement home in Sun City, overlooking the golf-course which helped him keep fit during his long retreat from public life.

The Gorilla was a genial extrovert and sportsman, good at golf and tennis, and with a (literally) "wicked" sense of humour. He was also said to be a caring pastoral priest, and popular with parishioners.

Commenting on his demise, Pope Benedict XVI says he recalls "with gratitude the late Archbishop's priestly zeal, his years of faithful service to the Holy See, and his valued work for the Vatican City State". How fortunate, after such a life, to have well-disposed obituary writers in high places.

* [Still available from B. Smoker at 51 Farmfield Road, Bromley, Kent, BR1 4NF, at £10 post free.]