Security fears for Pope as attacker strikes again

'Psychologically unstable' woman breaches barriers and knocks pontiff to floor
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The Independent Online

An investigation was launched yesterday into the effectiveness of the Pope's security detail after it emerged that a woman who managed to jump over security barriers and knock the pontiff to the floor had tried to do the same thing the year before.

Susanna Maiolo, who holds dual Swiss and Italian nationality, managed to dive past the security detail protecting Pope Benedict during midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

She had tried to assault the Pope at the same ceremony the year before, but had been foiled within seconds of breaching the barrier that separated worshippers from the papal procession. This year, the 25-year-old was swiftly brought down to the ground by a bodyguard after leaping over a barrier, but not before she had managed to get a hold of the Pope's vestments, pulling him down to the floor with her.

The 82-year-old Pope was uninjured in the attack and went on to finish saying the evening Mass. But French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a prominent 87-year-old Vatican diplomat, was knocked over in the fracas and broke a leg. Thursday night's attack is the first successful assault on Benedict since his inauguration in 2005. But the fact that Maiolo had already tried to grab the Pope a year earlier will inevitably raise difficult questions for those responsible for the pontiff's safety – not least, how do you keep the Pope safe but continue to allow his followers to get physically close to him?

Yesterday the Vatican admitted that Maiolo, who has been described as "psychologically unstable", was wearing the same red hooded jumper that she wore during last year's attack.

However Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, said it was difficult to guarantee an unbreachable level of security because the leader of the world's Roman Catholics needs to be close to his followers. "It is impossible to prevent every possibility of something happening, even at close range," Father Lombardi said last night. "The Pope wants to have a direct, pastoral relationship with people where you can touch children, shake hands and do what you want to do and what the people want you to do. He added that: "If you want watertight security you can't do that. Being out of touch with people, being far from them, runs against the spirit of his mission, so there will always be a risk." But Vatican security chiefs would be reviewing security procedures to "try to learn from experience", he added.

Gerry Noel, a former editor of Britain's Catholic Herald newspaper, told The Independent that the Vatican would be loathe to surround the Pope with so many layers of security that he became inaccessible to his followers. "The Vatican tightened up security after September 11, but they may need to tighten it up further," he said. "But I don't think the Pope will suddenly become inaccessible to the people; they'll be keen to avoid that."

Thousands of worshippers had packed into the Basilica on Christmas Eve to see the Pope proceed down the aisle towards the main altar when the attack took place. Those entering must walk through metal detectors, but once inside St Peter's the security is relatively relaxed.

Acquiring tickets for a papal mass is also very easy. Virtually anyone can apply and their names are then put on a waiting list. On Thursday evening, worshippers were not asked to provide any form of identification which would have made it harder to spot and stop known trouble-makers.

It is not known whether Vatican security chiefs use the same sort of tactics that British police use to pick out football hooligans from large crowds, but either way Maiolo clearly managed to pass through without raising any alarms.

Any review of the Vatican's security procedures could have practical implications for the Pope's upcoming visit to Britain next year, particularly if his bodyguards decide to keep him behind heavier layers of security.

Traditionally the Pope is shielded by his own private army of Swiss Guards, based in the Vatican City. In previous centuries guards have laid down their lives to protect him. Nowadays the Swiss Guard is supplemented by specially trained Italian and Vatican police.

In 1981 the Vatican took a step back from the custom of having the pontiff offer front-line greetings to crowds after a Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca nearly killed John Paul II. The Pope now travels in a bullet-proof "Pope Mobile" but Vatican chiefs are still keen to make sure that the Pontiff is accessible to the public.

At his annual Urbi et Orbi ("to the city and the world") Christmas message yesterday the Pope looked healthy as he greeted the world's Catholics in 65 languages. He made no reference to Thursday night's attack, but used his speech to talk about the importance of renouncing violence and promoting forgiveness.

People, he said, should "abandon every logic of violence and vengeance, and engage with renewed vigour and generosity in the process which leads to peaceful coexistence".