Vatican media chief resigns over doctored letter scandal

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Vatican City – The head of the Vatican’s communications department resigned Wednesday in a scandal about a letter from the retired pope that he mischaracterized in public and then had digitally manipulated in a photograph sent to the media.

Monsignor Dario Vigano

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Monsignor Dario Vigano on Wednesday and named his deputy, Monsignor Lucio Adrian Ruiz, to run the Secretariat for Communications for now. Vigano will stay on in the department in a lesser capacity.

The so-called “Lettergate” scandal erupted last week after Vigano read aloud part of a private letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI at a book launch for a Vatican-published, 11-volume set of books about Francis’ theology.

Marking Francis’ fifth anniversary as pope, Vigano had held up Benedict’s letter as a sign of the continuity between the two popes, to blunt critics who complain that Francis’ mercy-over-morals papacy represents a theological break from Benedict’s doctrinaire term.

Vigano didn’t read the whole letter, and omitted the part where Benedict objected to one of the authors in the volume because he had been a longtime critic of Benedict and St. John Paul II.

The Associated Press reported that the photograph of the letter that Vigano’s office had sent out to the media digitally blurred out the lines where Benedict began to explain that he wouldn’t comment on the books. The manipulation violated basic photojournalism ethical standards that forbid such distortion, especially when it misrepresents the content of the image.

The scandal embarrassed the Vatican and led to accusations that the pope’s own communications office was spreading “fake news,” just weeks after Francis dedicated his annual media message to denouncing “fake news” and the intentional distortion of information.

In his resignation letter dated March 19, Vigano said he wanted to step aside so that his presence “wouldn’t delay, damage or block” Francis’ reform of the Vatican’s communications operations.

He acknowledged that his behavior, despite his intentions, had destabilized the communications reform.

A letter by retired Pope Benedict is seen in this photo released on March 13, 2018 that the Vatican admitted was doctored, by blurring its final two lines, where retired Pope Benedict begins to acknowledge that he didn't read an 11-volume set of books about Pope Francis' theology, seen at right, and doesn't have time to comment them.

In his own letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he was doing so reluctantly. He asked Vigano to remain on in the communications secretariat in the new position of “assessor,” which in Vatican offices usually amounts to the No. 3 spot. It is rare for the Vatican press office to release such letters, suggesting that the pope wanted it clear that he still had faith in Vigano to help oversee the consolidation of the Vatican’s vast media operations.

Francis had named Vigano, an expert in film, to head the new Secretariat for Communications in 2015. The department was created to bring under one umbrella the Vatican’s various media operations, to cut costs and improve efficiency. But Vigano’s reforms and management style soured many longtime employees.

After the AP revealed the doctored photo and another Vatican commentator, Sandro Magister, hinted that there was even more in the letter that Vigano had concealed, the communications office on Saturday released the full text of Benedict’s letter. It had been sent to Vigano by the retired pope as “personal” and “reserved,” suggesting that it was never meant to be made public.

The previously concealed part of the letter provided the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on the books: In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project, German theologian Peter Huenermann, had launched “virulent” attacks against papal teaching during Benedict’s papacy. He wrote that he was surprised the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”

In the parts of Benedict’s letter that Vigano read during the book launch and included in a subsequent press release, Benedict confirmed that Francis has a solid theological and philosophical training and he praised the book initiative for showing the “interior continuity” between the two papacies. He wrote it was “foolish prejudice” to paint Francis as only a practical man devoid of theology and Benedict as a mere academic who knew nothing of the lives of ordinary faithful.

But Benedict’s full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano’s presentation, press release or accompanying photo. That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.

As a result, Vigano’s effort to show papal continuity effectively backfired. Benedict’s harsh criticism of Huenermann laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes, and frankly showed the retired pope still bore something of a grudge.

It remains unclear who was responsible for selecting Huenermann to write one of the 11 books.