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Cardinal’s acquittal met with cynicism


Christmas was undoubtedly merry this year for Cardinal Michele Giordano of Naples, finally out from under a three-year criminal investigation and trial for alleged complicity in a loan-sharking ring.

Giordano, who according to prosecutors had sustained a scam run by his brother with money from diocesan coffers, was acquitted Dec. 22, 2000. The verdict brings to an apparent end one of the most convulsive episodes in recent church history, the first time a cardinal has faced jail time for such a criminal offense.

The trial was a running embarrassment for the Vatican, given that John Paul II has so often preached against usury, and given that Giordano was allegedly stealing money from some of the poorest and most desperate people in Europe. Southern Italy is chronically underdeveloped, with an unemployment rate rising in some places to almost 40 percent.

The outcome, paradoxically, was at the same time something of a surprise and yet universally anticipated. It was surprising in the sense that many believed the Dec. 22 decision might go against Giordano because of the traditional omen of St. Januarius’ blood, which this year seemed to signal bad news for Naples.

The legend of the blood is among the more colorful, if bizarre, bits of church lore in this part of the world. The story goes that on Dec. 16, 1631, the people of Naples prayed to Januarius, their patron saint, to spare them from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The saint’s blood, preserved in a jar, supposedly liquefied, taken as a sign of a positive response to the prayer, and in fact Vesuvius did not erupt. Since then the people gather each year on Dec. 16 to see if the blood has liquefied again; if so it’s taken as good luck for Naples, if not, bad. This time the blood stayed dry, and many interpreted it as an augur of misfortune for His Eminence.

Some church wags, unimpressed with Giordano, say the blood actually called it just right: The bad omen was that Naples is now stuck with him.

Folklore aside, however, most people were convinced that no matter what happened Dec. 22, Giordano would never see the inside of a jail cell, for the simple fact that he is a cardinal and this is Italy.

After all, ultra-Catholic former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was acquitted twice in recent years, once of having links to the Mafia and once of conspiring to kill a journalist, and many believe he was helped out of those jams by his close Vatican ties. Andreotti is a daily communicant and the editor of 30 Giorni, the influential magazine of the Catholic lay movement Comunione e Liberazione. In May 1999, as his murder trial reached its climax, he was received by the pope at the end of a beatification Mass and given a personal blessing on national television. Birthday greetings from John Paul to Andreotti that same year expressed the hope that his “suffering” would be for the good of Italy.

If a “virtual cardinal” such as Andreotti could not be convicted in this country that is still in many ways under the thumb of the papacy, a fortiori, or so the popular reasoning went, Giordano was all the more beyond the reach of the law.

Personally, I can’t balance my checkbook, let alone evaluate a case against someone for loansharking. Hence I have no way to know if Giordano was culpable. There does seem to be a tendency toward political manipulation of the legal process here, and Giordano may well be as innocent as the magistrate declared.

Yet there remains the clear perception the Catholic hierarchy has created, wittingly or not, that “taking care of its own” is its highest value. It is troubling that so many Italians who live with this institution every day, whose families have lived with it for generations, are convinced of its insincerity. One can invoke platitudes about familiarity breeding contempt or scoff at Italian volatility, but the most intelligent and deeply idealistic young people I’ve met here will, rightly or wrongly, point to this verdict as one more reason to regard the church as corrupt.

As for the Vatican, before Dec. 22 it steered something of a middle course. Officials said they supported Giordano, but they did not bring him within the comfort of Vatican walls where he could not be arrested, as had been the case with American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus during the Vatican Bank scandals of the late 1970s and 1980s.

After the verdict, however, the Holy See went on the offensive. Papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls said Giordano should have been proclaimed innocent immediately (that is, presumably, before a trial), and complained that when police sequestered archdiocesan offices in Naples to examine financial records, they had violated the Concordat that regulates church/state relations.

Most Italians I know, hearing the comments, shrugged and told me: “Some things never change.”

John L. Allen’s e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001