Vatican tries to limit scandal

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CARDINAL MICHELE Giordano of Naples is being investigated for involvement in loan-sharking and extorting Church funds, but his diocese is still firmly behind him. "They've always loved him, and that hasn't changed," said local journalist Rita Pennarola. "They don't believe he's guilty."

The public prosecutor in the small southern town of Lagonegro says evidence shows that the cardinal dipped heavily into diocese funds to provide financial backing for a usury operation run by his brother.

It is a state of affairs that deeply worries the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italy, because its already messy copybook has been blotted once again. Italians are soon to sign their tax returns, deciding which charitable body will receive their obligatory donation of 0.8 per cent of the sum owed to the Inland Revenue. That tax mechanism brought almost half a million pounds into church coffers in 1997. With this new blow, the church is facing a sharp drop in those funds.

The Vatican - which, like many of Giordano's fellow cardinals, failed to come out strongly in his support when the scandal broke a week ago - emerged from its shell of reserve to engage in damage control efforts.

Four days after news broke that the cardinal's brother - now in prison awaiting trial - last year alone came into possession of hundreds of thousands of pounds from accounts held by the cardinal and by the diocese, the cardinal invited the press to document the shenanigans in the Curia.

Public prosecutors sent a mob of over-enthusiastic police to seek documentary evidence of wrongdoing in the cardinal's residence and offices. One source revealed that the cardinal's private phone line had been tapped for three months.

"What," Giordano said in outraged tones to his media entourage, "if they had overheard my conversations with the Pope?"

The possibility that the tapescripts, if leaked, might prove an embarrassment in Church circles apparently caused concern in the Vatican, which summoned Italy's ambassador to the Holy See on Thursday to protest against a number of elements in the inquiry into the cardinal's suspected crimes.

The cardinal has instructed his lawyers to sue the prosecutors for abuse of office. Yesterday there was an eerie silence from the Naples Curia.