By Jason Horowitz
The Washington Post
— ATICAN CITY — Guests at the going-away party for Carlo Maria Vigano couldn't understand why the archbishop looked so forlorn. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Vigano ambassador to the United States, a plum post where he would settle into a stately mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., across the street from the vice president's residence.
"He went through the ordeal making it very clear he was unhappy with it," said one former ambassador to the Vatican, who attended the Vatican Gardens ceremony in the late summer of 2011. "And we just couldn't figure out, us outsiders and non-Italians, what was going on."
There was no such confusion within Vatican walls. Benedict had installed Vigano to enact a series of reforms within the Vatican. But some of Rome's highest-ranking cardinals undercut the efforts and hastened Vigano's exile to the United States.
Vigano's plight and other unflattering machinations would soon become public in an unprecedented leak of the pontiff's personal correspondence. Much of the media — and the Vatican — focused on the source of the shocking security breach. Largely lost were the revelations contained in the letters themselves — tales of rivalry and betrayal, allegations of corruption and systemic dysfunction that infused the inner workings of the Holy See and the eight-year papacy of Benedict XVI. Last week, he announced that he will become the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
The next pope may bring with him an invigorating connection to the Southern Hemisphere, a media magnetism or better leadership skills than the shy and cerebral Benedict. But whoever he may be, the 266th pope will inherit a gerontocracy obsessed with turf and Italian politics, uninterested in basic management practices and hostile to reforms.
VatiLeaks, as the scandal came to be known, dragged the fusty institution into the wild WikiLeaks era. It exposed the church bureaucracy's entrenched opposition to Benedict's fledgling effort to carve out a legacy as a reformer against the backdrop of a global child sex abuse scandal and the continued dwindling of his flock.
It showed how Benedict, a weak manager who may most be remembered for the way in which he left office, was no match for a culture that rejected even a modicum of transparency and preferred a damage-control campaign that diverted attention from the institution's fundamental problems. Interviews in Rome with dozens of church officials, Vatican insiders and foreign government officials close to the church, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, mapped out that hermetic universe.
"We can reveal the face of the church and how this face is, at times, disfigured," Benedict said in his final homily on Ash Wednesday. "I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the church, of the divisions in the body of the church." He called for his ministry to overcome "individualism" and "rivalry," saying they were only for those "who have distanced themselves from the faith."
A radical transformation of the culture is unlikely. "We're talking about people who have given their life to this institution, but at the same time the institution has become their life," said one senior Vatican official. "Unlike parish priests, who have the personal rewards that come with everyday contact, their lot is not as human. It's bureaucratic, but it becomes all-consuming."
The entire debacle, he said, "wasn't a communications crisis. It was a management crisis."