A spy in the house of God

With its black masses, illicit weddings, bribery and sexual impropriety, a kiss-and-tell expose of the Vatican has gripped all Italy and shocked Catholics everywhere. Until recently, the identity of its author has remained a mystery. But now the monsignor who broke ranks is feeling the full force of Papal wrath. And he's not going quietly...

After long service at the Vatican, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli was looking forward to a quiet retirement, celebrating Mass at an old people's home, reading and writing letters, and tending the small plot of land near his apartment, which overlooks St Peter's.

In the last two months, this peaceful existence has been shattered. Monsignor Marinelli now spends his days in rounds of heated meetings with journalists, lawyers and publishers. Since he published the controversial book Gone with the Wind in the Vatican, the 72-year-old retired monsignor has become the centre of a major scandal. The book, which reveals power games, sexual scandals and financial misdealings within the Vatican, has shocked Catholics, enraged the Vatican hierarchy and become a runaway best-seller. The Vatican has attempted to have the book banned but the publishers have ordered reprints, and most bookshops in Rome have sold out. Monsignor Marinelli has been committed for trial by the Rota Romana, the ecclesiastical court, for libel, and risks being stripped of his priesthood.

As one of Marinelli's three stern sisters shows me into his bedroom, which doubles as a study, he is finishing a conversation with his lawyer. Marinelli says he has absolutely no regrets, and stands by the work. He is also taken aback by the reaction of his superiors. "It's not a book against the Catholic Church but an act of love for the Church. It's a warning, a chance for them to put things right, to sort out the rot," he says.

A phrase in bright red letters on the book's front cover leaves no doubt about the desire to blow the lid on Vatican misdoings. "It's time the Church asked forgiveness from Christ for the countless infidelities and betrayals of His ministers, especially those in authority at the top of the ecclesiastical ladder".

Gone with the Wind in the Vatican was written under the pseudonym I Millenari, the Millenarians. The title is also an anagram of Marinelli, who is the only one of its authors to have owned up. Rumour has it that one of the others, said to be four or five veteran Vatican priests, is a Polish prelate. None of those accused of wrongdoing is named, but for those in the know many are easily identifiable. High-level officials are reported to have raced out and bought the book, flicking through it anxiously to see whether it contained any personal references.

Detractors have accused Marinelli of gossip and scandal-mongering, but he maintains that everything in the book is true. "I get feedback from my friends and contacts and there is general approval among those who work in the Vatican. Eighty percent of the bishops and cardinals are truly holy men, but the other 20 per cent are greedy and will stop at nothing. This is the real problem; much of the sexual and financial misconduct stems from that."

Not surprisingly, no one in the Vatican is prepared to comment, on the record, on the controversial work. Marinelli's key accusations are: rampant careerism; a secretive method of electing bishops and cardinals; infiltration of Freemasons into the higher echelons of the Vatican; and a lack of any organisation to defend priests or other Vatican employees against injustices from their superiors. The sexual shenanigans, Marinelli says, "were included only to illustrate the main principles". He can't resist adding that the authors left out many exploits, and failed to elaborate on salacious details.

Inevitably it is the mention of sex and money that has attracted most attention in a book about the world headquarters of the Catholic Church. There is the story of the young priest who was married, with Papal dispensation, to the sister of a monsignor working inside the Vatican. Apparently he used to boast about having access to state secrets. When it was discovered that a journalist was about to run with the story, the priest was promoted to the papal nunziate and sent abroad. According to the book, several priests from India, while lodging at a convent in Rome, watched gay porn on TV at 3am.

An elderly American priest allegedly bribed the Roman curia to make him a bishop, and at 72 he was set up with a diocese in the United States. He habitually used Church treasures as collateral for bank loans, and on his death most of the money passed to his natural daughter - who knew about his financial dealings and had blackmailed him. One bishop was caught by police officers, semi-naked, in a car with another man. Another was caught at the Swiss border with a suitcase full of banknotes. The book contains accounts of black Masses, in which participants were naked from the waist down.

But there is also fierce criticism of greed and power play within the Vatican state. One chapter describes attempts to take advantage of the current Pope's frailty to influence the choice of his successor.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of the book is not the secrets it reveals, or the identity of the protagonists, but why the Vatican, usually so diplomatically astute, bungled its handling of the scandal.

The book, published by Kaos Edizioni of Milan, had an initial print run of 7,000 when it came out in February. It went virtually unnoticed until June, when Marinelli was ordered by the Vatican to hand over copies of the book and halt translation for sales abroad - neither of which lay in his power. The ensuing publicity had an electric effect on sales.

But the real coup was the announcement that Monsignor Marinelli was to be tried by the ecclesiastical court for libel. The case was to be brought by the nephew of a bishop, now dead, who claims that his unnamed relative had been defamed. In the furore surrounding the case, the Vatican even went so far as to issue a statement declaring that it was not trying to curtail anyone's freedom of expression, but aimed simply to protect the rights of individuals who felt they had been libelled.

"It wasn't enough that for months no one talked about the book and everyone pretended it didn't exist," says Marinelli. "People within the Vatican who felt threatened wanted my head. Unfortunately it has rebounded on them." He tries not to sound smug. Rights for Spain and Germany have already been sold and negotiations are ongoing with a British publisher. Kaos Edizioni has already received orders for 100,000 more copies.

Extreme sensitivity about the book could be attributed to pre-millennium jitters. For the Roman Catholic Church, 2000 is not just the start of a new millennium but a holy year, in which they expect 30 million pilgrims to visit Rome. Much of the emphasis in the run-up to the event has been on atonement and reflection. The Pope has officially asked forgiveness of the Jews, and the Vatican has also come close to apologising to victims of the Inquisition. As the Church prepares its mea culpa for sins past, it is becoming more sensitive to criticism. Publication of this book, after all, is just the latest in a series of events that have cast the Vatican in a bad light.

Last year, a member of the Pope's personal army, the Swiss Guards, shot his commander and the commander's wife, before turning the pistol on himself. The Vatican inquiry concluded that the killer was angry at being passed over for promotion, while newspapers reported that he was a spy for the East German Stasi, or was involved in a love triangle.

The colossal scandals involving the Vatican Bank, the IOR, dating back to the Eighties, have not been forgotten. Under the direction of Cardinal Paul Marcinkus, the bank made deals with some of Italy's dodgiest financiers, including Michele Sindona, who had close ties with the Sicilian mafia, and Roberto Calvi, president of Italy's biggest private bank, the Banco Ambrosiano, which collapsed shortly after Calvi was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.

There have been more recent cases of financial scandal among men of the cloth. The archbishop of Naples, Michele Giordano, was placed under investigation last year by Italian magistrates for alleged involvement in money-lending and using diocesan funds to finance his family businesses. There is also evidence of nepotism; Cardinal Giordano's relatives were awarded lucrative contracts with the diocese. Just last month two Rome-based priests, an American and an Italian, were caught up in a $300m insurance scam. They were reportedly used as a front by fraudster Martin Frankel, currently the FBI's most wanted man.

The Vatican is no doubt hoping that interest in Gone with the Wind in the Vatican will fade away over the summer, and be a dim memory by the time Rome gears up for the Holy Year celebrations. But with another hearing in the libel trial expected in September, and a big promotional drive organised for the Frankfurt Book Fair, that seems highly unlikely. What's more, the publishers are already talking about a sequel.

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