Whispers were reverberating around the corridors of the Vatican yesterday over incendiary claims by the editor of the Berlusconi family newspaper that the Holy See was the source of bogus documents sent to blacken the name of a Catholic editor.
Dino Boffo was forced to resign as editor of Italian Bishops' Conference daily Avvenire last September after an article by Vittorio Feltri, the Rottweiler editor of Il Giornale, claimed Boffo was a "renowned homosexual" who had been fined for harassing the wife of a man he was pursuing.
Mr Feltri later admitted the claims were based on bogus documents, which he said were sent to him. Although it emerged that Mr Boffo had made an out-of-court settlement with someone he had known 10 years earlier, Feltri apologised. By then relations between the church and Mr Berlusconi's government had gone into deep-freeze. Now, however, it has emerged that during a fence-mending lunch in Milan last week, Mr Feltri told Mr Boffo that "a very authoritative, and institutional source at the Holy See" had sent him the bogus dossier. Mr Boffo repeated the claims to another Catholic publication, Il Foglio, on 30 January. "A person in the church... contacted me and let me have the photocopies," he said.
Italian newspapers yesterday reported that the pope was concerned about the claims and that daggers might once again be drawn over the Boffo affair. Other senior church figures expressed alarm that the church may have been the source of the malicious documents. Monsignor Domenico Mogavero, Bishop of Mazara del Vallo in Sicily and head of judicial affairs for the Italian Bishops Conference, told La Repubblica he was "alarmed" by events.
"If the accusations against Boffo really originated from the church we are facing a moral situation, a sin," he said. "These events have damaged the church from the start. We hope they're not going to do so again." But Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press spokesman, dismissed Mr Feltri's claims as mischief-making. "I can categorically deny these claims, which are designed to create confusion and false rumours," he said.
Another leading church figure, close to the Pope, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, said the suggestion that someone in the Vatican had supplied the documents was "unthinkable". He raised the possibility that Mr Feltri had made the claims to conceal the real source of the dossier.