Book title: City of secrets: The truth behind the murders at the Vatican
Author: John Follain
Publisher: William Morrow
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
TRUTH? What is truth? The sub-title of John Follain’s book promises more than the author is really qualified to deliver: nothing less than “the truth” behind the Swiss Guard murders in the Vatican in 1998. But whether or not one believes that Follain delivers the goods, he does spin a page-turning narrative that leaves the reader wondering, at times, whether this is a factual account or a just a clever work of historical fiction.
The book begins on what Follain calls “the darkest day of the long reign of John Paul II”. It is 5 May, the morning after a newly appointed Swiss Guard commander has been found dead in a pool of blood inside the Vatican, together with his wife and a young corporal. There were no eye-witnesses to their deaths, yet the Pope’s press director, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has already solved the case: he says the younger Guard, Cedric Tornay, murdered the other two, Alois Estermann and Gladys Meza Romero, before turning the gun on himself. The double homicide and suicide were committed, says Navarro-Valls, in a “fit of madness”.
Ten months later, an in-house inquiry (as an independent country, the Vatican had no obligation to seek outside assistance) “ended just the way the Pope’s spokesman predicted it would end”. This investigation was meant to prove the truth of the matter. But, like many of the journalists in Rome, John Follain doesn’t buy it. “The more I studied the way the Vatican had reacted to the deaths,” he writes, “the more I suspected that it was being economical with the truth.” This is where his story begins.
Armed with the skills of a good investigative reporter, he starts poking about in this city of secrets — and far beyond — to find out whether there is more to the murders than the Vatican is saying. And he finds out plenty, which offers great material for a tantalising tale.
First, he discovers some ugly stains behind the colourful façade of the Swiss Guards. Not only are there serious problems of morale and even morality, but the Guards are also deficient in modern military weaponry and preparation. He paints a picture of a corps in crisis, and exposes the discrimination that young Tornay was forced to endure for the simple reason that he was a French-speaking member of a force made up mainly of German-speakers.
Follain sketches some rather entertaining, if unflattering, profiles of several Vatican officials. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Pope’s Secretary of State, is “a rotund figure with owlish glasses” who “loves secrecy as much as he hates criticism”; Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, is “a pure Curia bureaucrat” who has “rabbit teeth and narrow eyes”.
Follain deduces that the papal spokesman, Navarro-Valls, “wields more power than most princes of the Church” by sardonically pointing out that he “wears his pink porphyry ring bearing his family’s coat of arms as if it were a cardinal’s seal of office”. But, surprisingly, he does not further pursue Navarro’s connection to the religious group Opus Dei, even though Commander Estermann and his wife Gladys were also involved in the organisation.
One by one, Follain debunks the conspiracy theories that sprouted in the days and weeks after the Vatican murders — that the culprit was a mysterious fourth person who wanted Estermann eliminated because he was an East German spy (Follain sniffs all this out by going to Berlin), or a plant by Opus Dei; the other two victims were supposedly incidental casualties who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But no one, including the author, has seriously investigated whether the real target in the attacks was not Estermann but his wife, a remarkable and strong individual who was Venezuela’s first-ever woman cop, and was a physician. She seemed to be a much heartier character than the mousy embassy archivist that we are briefly introduced to in the book.
Follain discredits the fourth-person theory by turning, or rather flying, to Wales, where he seeks out the “distinguished forensic pathologist and veteran of countless causes célèbres”, Professor Bernard Knight. What has Cardiff to do with Rome, you ask. Follain says he went there “in frustration at the wall of silence” he ran up against in the Vatican. Unable to get original forensic records, he takes Knight a “summary” of the autopsies and ballistics results. And on this alone he rests his case.
Impressively, Follain interviews just about everyone who will talk to him. Unfortunately, most of his contacts inside the Vatican are minor characters or anonymous sources, with the exception of the prissy chaplain of the Swiss Guards. He describes a smarmy conversation with this priest in dialogue form, which leaves the reader (maybe unfairly) more than a little unsympathetic towards all such “Vatican types”.
The one line that Follain pursues extensively is the rumour that Estermann and Tornay were involved in a homosexual love affair. He talks to a number of flamboyant gays in Rome, former Swiss Guards, and even the chaplain, to test the veracity of this gossip, but he succeeds only in perpetuating it without answering the question.
There are only a few bizarre bits scattered about the book, but none is more bizarre than the claim that Estermann was said “to act as a stand-in and don the white papal cassock and skullcap” when “intelligence services warned of imminent threats to the Pope”. Unlikely. And the statement that the Swiss Cardinal Henri Schwery was made a bishop at the age of 25 is surely a typographical error.
Despite the fact that he is not a Vatican insider, John Follain has done a remarkable job in digging about this murder mystery, and one that is just about as thorough as that done by anyone up to date. He has served up an extremely readable book. But at the end of his narrative we are left, like Pontius Pilate, asking: “What is truth?”
Robert Micken, communications officer for Franciscans International in Geneva, worked for more than a decade at Vatican Radio.
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