ROME — WikiLeaks, the tell-anything anti-secrecy organization, on Wednesday took aim at one of the world’s most secretive institutions, the Vatican, releasing a small collection of documents about a power struggle involving Pope Francis, a leading traditionalist cardinal and a medieval Catholic order of knights.
The documents offered little new about a fight that two years ago was widely covered in the media. Their contents seem especially paltry at a time when the Vatican is embroiled in full-fledged scandals on multiple continents. But the release represented the first time WikiLeaks has turned its spotlight on the often-acrimonious internal affairs of the Holy See, and some Vatican watchers wondered whether more damaging secrets might start to escape the city-state’s walls.
“The fact itself, WikiLeaks entering the internal affairs of the Vatican, is an alarm bell,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher. “The subject itself is not interesting. These are old diatribes, old fights. But the important thing will be the next step. Will there be a subsequent WikiLeaks [release] on something not previously revealed? Should WikiLeaks pull out stuff regarding pedophilia or banking scandals, then we would be on to something new.”
Though the Vatican has been burned by leaks in the past — mostly notably when a trove of confidential documents was released in 2012 with help from then-Pope Benedict XVI’s butler — the city-state is famed for its airtight hold on information, including its paperwork on cases involving sexual abuse.
A Vatican spokesman noted that WikiLeaks had previously touched on church affairs, in 2010, but the documents leaked then were cables from the U.S. Embassy, describing diplomatic relations with the Holy See. WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said Wednesday was the first time the organization released documents about the Vatican “conflict between the different factions.”
The documents stemmed from a knotty fight over leadership within the Knights of Malta, a sovereign Catholic order that in 2016 was found to have distributed contraceptives in some of the countries where it does charitable work. A power struggle ensued between the pope and the aristocratic order, and some observers said the tensions were exacerbated by Cardinal Raymond Burke, a papal adversary who was the group’s liaison to the Vatican.
But by the end, the pope had prevailed, forcing the resignation of the order’s grand master and installing his own apostolic delegate to the order.
WikiLeaks, describing some of the documents it released, recounted those events and said that the pope had “deeply undermined the Order’s independence and sovereignty.” Although it was unclear who shared the documents with WikiLeaks, that framing clearly echoed critics of the pope.
Among other documents, WikiLeaks released a letter from Francis to Burke, written before the conflagration had reached its height, indicating that he was keeping watch on developments. Several journalists said the letter had been in wide circulation, though it had not been made public.
Francis has become more vulnerable to opposition, and even dissent, as his papacy has been hobbled by a series of sexual-abuse-related crises. The faith’s leaders are divided over his handling of those crises, as well as his somewhat more permissive stance on social issues and his use of power. In August, a former Vatican ambassador — in the most visible form of friction of Francis’s papacy — accused the pope of knowing about and failing to act on the alleged abuse of seminarians by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The ambassador said Francis should resign.
Francis has not responded to the accusations. The Vatican subsequently said it was preparing “necessary clarifications.” The Vatican also said it was studying its archived records of McCarrick and would eventually “make known the conclusions.”
But so far, the church has taken neither promised step. And the files, for now, remain secret.
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.