A mushrooming scandal involving a secret Masonic lodge had forced the justice minister to resign and threatened the reputations of a large group of politicians and other influential Italians.
The scandal, which concerns the role of a secret Freemasons lodge known as the P2 or Propaganda Due, has been brewing ever since the mid-70s, when Italy's leftist press launched accusations that it was a "hidden center of power." It came to a head in recent weeks along with developments in a longstanding judicial investigation into the activities of the lodge's fugitive grandmaster, Licio Gelli, for whom an international warrant was issued Friday.
Gelli and another lodge member who formerly was a secret services official, Col. Antonio Viezzer, have been charged by magistrates in Milan and Rome with political espionage and attempts to obtain information damaging to state security.
An honorary consul for Argentia, Gelli was questioned by Italian magistrates in 1975 and 1976 about possible links to Tuscan neofascists and to Italian kidnaping gangs. In 1976 a dissident Mason told Florentine authorities that Gelli had been planning a coup d'etat. No solid evidence was ever found to substantiate any of these charges.
Gelli is also under investigation for his alleged role in organizing the faked kidnaping from New York in 1979 of Sicilian financier Michele Sindona, according to police charges against other figures in the scandal.
The political implications of the scandal exploded last week when, under pressure from opposition parties and the press, Christian Democratic Premier Arnaldo Forlani decided to release a list of 962 alleged P2 members that Milan magistrates found when they searched Gelli's factory, GioLe, last March 17.
Along with conservatives and rightists, the list included deputies from the Christian Democratic, Socialist, Social Democratic and Republican parties that make up the center-left government coalition. The disclosures thus landed like a short-fused bundle of dynamite amid the political disarray of Forlani's eight-month-old government.
The list of names, some of which had been leaked to the press in preceding weeks, included three Cabinet ministers, two under secretaries, 30 members of parliament including the leader of the Social Democratic Party, 170 top military officers, the Foreign Ministry's highest ranking diplomat, scores of high-ranking civil servants and public officials, magistrates, industrialists, university professors, policemen and journalists, including the editor and publisher of Italy's most prestigious daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
Most of those named have denied the allegations and documentary evidence appears to exist only in the case of several dozen. Nevertheless, release of the list set off an explosive reaction.
On Saturday, Justice Minister Adolfo Sarti resigned, saying he was innocent despite publication of a photo of an alleged application form apparently in his own handwriting.
The two other ministers -- Enrico Manca, minister of foreign trade, and Franco Foschi, minister of labor, both Socialists -- have so far refused to resign but would probably be replaced in any Cabinet reshuffle. Several aides to top politicians whose names have been mentioned have also been removed from their posts, and the head of Italian state television's first channel news program, Franco Colombo, also resigned "to better defend myself."
Publication of a list of alleged Masons -- an international secret society with the principles of brotherliness, charity and mutual aid -- has a different meaning here than it would in the United States, where the group functions in the open much as other service organizations.
Although Freemasonry played an important role in the movement for Italian national unification and Giuseppe Garibaldi, a national hero, was a grand master of the order, its reputation was severely damaged by anticlericalism in a country where until 1870 large areas were ruled by the Vatican.
Since World War II, Masons have existed openly. Italy's Grand Orient Lodge, with 526 branches and about 20,000 members, has its headquarters a block away from Christian Democratic Party headquarters.
But in addition to the disreputable tint given the Masons over the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the P2 lodge has acquired a particular notoriety, largely because of the suspicion surrounding Gelli and his activities.
The century-old P2 lodge is said to have been primarily a list of Vip Masons whose names were known only to the grand master. Under Gelli, a former mattress manufacturer from Tuscany who took over the P2 in 1975, it is said to have become a "center of secret power" including influential people whom Gelli reportedly manipulated.
The present uproar stems especially from an inquiry by Milan magistrates into Gelli's role in the staged kidnaping of Sindona and allegations that he was instrumental in getting the bankrupt banker a passport when he originally fled Italy.
Press reports have attributed the charges of spying to Gelli's possession of a classified government report on oil purchasing kickbacks and files on top political and economic personalities said to be among 34,000 dossiers that the now-abolished SID secret service, of which Viezzer was an official, was supposed to have burned in 1974.
Also said to have been among the documents found after Gelli left the country in March is a list of 181 persons who before its collapse used Sindona's Banca Privata Italiana to export capital illegally.
The list of alleged lodge members' names released last week included several persons implicated in last year's oil tax fraud scandal as well as that of top Milanese banker Roberto Calvi, who was arrested Wednesday on charges of illegal capital export. Only a few weeks ago Calvi bought a 40 percent interest of Corriere della Sera, whose editor, Franco di Bella, was named in the list. Di Bella subsequently has admitted knowing Gelli but denied belonging to the P2.
Most of those named on the list are not implicated in illicit activities. But because of another related issue, the legitimacy of secret societies, they could, however, be accused of a breach of political ethics or, in the case of those holding state office, prosecuted.
Article 18 of the Italian constitution guarantees Italians freedom of association but outlaws secret societies. Article 212 of the 1931 Public Security Law makes membership in secret organizations grounds for dismissal for public administrators, employes and "civil and military agents of the state."
Against this background, the Socialist minister of defense, Lelio Lagorio, said last week, "There will be no summary executions while I am here."
"Between the word of honor of a senior officer and the mysterious lists of an intriguer like Gelli, until otherwise proven the former will prevail," he added.
Indeed, cool heads have pointed out that the list's veracity is not necessarily without question. Several politicians and journalists on the list have said in interviews that while they knew Gelli they had never considered becoming Freemasons.
In an article this Sunday, the Turin daily La Stampa pointed out that the list magistrates found in a suitcase in Gelli's factory had been freshly typed up before he left the country. Although the names are followed by figures the magistrates say represent membership dates, card numbers and dues paid, there has been speculation that Gelli may have also included in the list names of people he merely knew or hoped to contact.
With important elections coming up next month, it is hard to avoid the impression that there may be a political explanation why the scandal has been fanned to its current proportions.
But at least some aspects of controversy must be put into the context of an Italian fascination with intrigue and plots. For years much of the Italian political and media world has been convinced that someone has been pulling all the strings of the complex Italian world.
Nowhere has this been better illustrated then in the leftist press that, after repeatedly linking the fugitive grand master to an unending series of crimes, continues to ask: "But who is giving Gelli his orders?"