e-mail us
Vatican Radio officials charged

NCR Staff

Eleven miles north of Rome, in a neighborhood called Santa Maria di Galeria, 50 mammoth radio transmitters reach heights of 130 yards. Since 1957, some 44 years now, they have beamed the voice of the pope to the world.

Today, a growing debate in Italy is asking whether those signals, broadcast around the globe by Vatican Radio, have been spreading something else closer to home -- illness and death from cancer.

The transmitters generate a signal so powerful it can be captured by the tiniest transistor radio in the Australian outback (though in metro areas crowded with radio stations, Vatican Radio is not available unless re-transmitted locally.)

A Vatican decision to invoke diplomatic immunity in a complaint brought by Italian prosecutors against three directors of the radio service has also revived debates about whether it’s appropriate for the Catholic church to respond to ethical challenges with legal maneuvering.

The three are charged with generating a level of electromagnetic output three or four times the limit fixed by Italian law.

Vatican Radio, the official broadcast service of the pope, employs 400 people and generates 67 hours of daily programming in 40 languages.

In recent weeks it has been under siege, faced with mounting speculation about a link between above-average cancer deaths and so-called “electrosmog” generated by its Santa Maria di Galeria facility.

By all accounts, the electromagnetic output from the transmitters is enormous, reputedly the most potent in the world. In houses and offices nearby, it is common for computers and washing machines to turn themselves on, for lights to flicker and for Vatican Radio broadcasts to break through telephones and intercom systems.

From 1988 to 1999, 41 people within a six-mile zone surrounding the transmitters died of leukemia, with 17 new cases arising in the last three years. Many of the victims and their families blame the transmitters for the suffering.

This theory was boosted by a recent study from the regional government of Lazio, the jurisdiction including Rome. The study found an increase in leukemia related to proximity to the transmitters. Infants living closest to the transmitters, for example, have an incidence of leukemia 6.06 times the norm for Rome.

Italian magistrates opened an investigation in October. Vatican officials have refused to cooperate on the basis that the transmitters are on extra-territorial Vatican property. Critics respond that electromagnetic waves do not respect these borders. Press coverage has been almost uniformly hostile to the Vatican. The situation is complex.

For one thing, Carlo Perucci, director of Lazio’s Agency for Public Health, says the population sample on which the Lazio study is based is too small to produce statistically significant conclusions. The only meaningful result of the study, Perucci told NCR, is that the risk of leukemia appears to drop the farther people are from the transmitters.

Yet even this is not a clear-cut finding against Vatican Radio, because Santa Maria di Galeria is also home to an Italian military radar installation. That installation has been significantly upgraded in recent years.

The director of Vatican Radio, Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, has repeatedly asserted that there is no scientific certainty of a link between electromagnetic energy and illness.

Moreover, in a March 9 interview on Vatican Radio, Borgomeo said that Vatican Radio complies with a standard for electromagnetic radiation upheld by 14 European countries. Italy’s 1998 law is unnecessarily restrictive, he said.

Faced with such arguments, Angelo Bonelli, head of the Green Party in Lazio and an advocate for the families, invokes common sense. “Trains that pass near the transmitters used to come to a halt because their engineering systems went into tilt,” Bonelli told NCR. “The railway system had to create a special covering for the motors, because the electromagnetic force was so strong. If these waves can block trains, what effect do you think they have on the human body?”

Bonelli, who has started a hunger strike “so this issue does not fall into silence,” is proposing a joint project to relocate the transmitters with financing from the Vatican and the Italian government. Borgomeo pointed out that when the transmitters were built in the mid-1950s the area was unpopulated. Today houses approach the edge of the Vatican property.

Privately, Borgomeo has speculated about a plot. Real estate developers, he told staff members in a March 12 meeting, may be behind the campaign against Vatican Radio, as property in Santa Maria di Galeria has gained dramatically in value since construction of a nearby highway. Bonelli told NCR he regards this theory as “bizarre.”

Borgomeo, along with the two other directors, refused to appear at a court hearing March 12. The case was delayed until Sept. 25, 27 or Oct. 23 on procedural grounds.

The directors are new Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Tucci, and layman Costantino Pacifici. As there is no Italian law against electrosmog, the three were charged under a statute for “throwing dangerous things,” which carries a fine of approximately $200.

Lawyers for the Vatican, including Eugenio Pacelli, a nephew of Pope Pius XII, argued that Vatican personnel are not subject to Italian law in the execution of their duties. Lawyers have cited a 1988 decision of the Italian Supreme Court regarding American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, charged with financial irregularities as administrator of the Vatican Bank. The court ruled that Marcinkus could neither be investigated nor adjudicated.

“The juridical aspect of the issue does not shelter us from unpopularity,” Borgomeo conceded March 12.

Bonelli says that concern for public health should trump other concerns. “We cannot abandon 50,000 people to living 24 hours a day in a microwave oven,” he said.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001