Cardinal Bertone's inevitable fall from grace?

Cardinals Bergoglio and Bertone

Pope Benedict might well have outfoxed his deputy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone with his resignation last year, writes Ingrid D. Rowland for The New York Review of Books.

A 2007 photograph taken in Argentina in 2007 shows two cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Tarcisio Bertone, sitting side by side, although their chairs are on different levels.

Cardinal Bertone's wooden armchair sits on a dais that puts him a good 15cms (six inches) higher than Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who perches uncomfortably on his metal-and-plastic seat.

The man known to many as the 'vice-Pope' occupies his virtual throne with kingly complacency, clad in yards of fine Italian filetto lace beneath his golden chasuble, with a sporty pair of aviator sunglasses to complement his gold-embroidered mitre (and is that a Rolex on his wrist?). Next to him, in Jesuit black under plain white robes, Cardinal Bergoglio, with his iron cross and his horn-rimmed spectacles, looks open-mouthed upon the radiant spectacle, his famously mobile face providing the perfect caption to the picture.

Six years later, Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis, and things have not been the same since.

On May 19, the glossy, gossipy German newspaper Bild Zeitung printed a report that made immediate headlines in Italy: Vatican prosecutors had begun to investigate allegations that Cardinal Bertone, as the Holy See's Number Two from 2006 to 2013, had embezzled 15 million euros ($AUD 21 million) from Vatican accounts, apparently to benefit an Italian television producer, a former director of the state broadcaster RAI named Ettore Bernabei, with deep connections to Italy's conservative establishment and a longtime membership in the powerful Catholic organisation Opus Dei.

The transfer of these funds allegedly occurred in December 2012. The Vatican press corps swiftly denied that a 'criminal investigation' was underway, and Cardinal Bertone himself insisted that the deal had followed 'all the rules.'

But the timing of the presumptive transaction is, to say the least, interesting.

It came at the very end of the remarkable year in which confidential documents from Pope Benedict's private office began leaking to the press, revealing power struggles within the Curia and suggestions of widespread corruption within the Church.

In these 'Vatileaks' documents, Cardinal Bertone figured prominently: He had personally reproved the General Secretary of the Vatican Governorate, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, for reporting detailed evidence of nepotism, cronyism, and crooked property deals within the Vatican, and soon Pope Benedict had transferred the whistle-blowing Prelate from the Vatican to Washington.

- Ingrid D. Rowland

Read more: The Fall of the Vice-Pope (The New York Review of Books)

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