March 21, 2018 / 12:04 PM / 4 months ago

Vatican communications chief resigns over 'Lettergate' scandal

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis’ communications chief resigned on Wednesday after a scandal over a doctored letter, a public relations fiasco for the Vatican two months after the pope had warned of the dangers of fake news.

Italian head of the Vatican communications department Dario Vigano poses during the presentation of the message of Pope Francis for the 51st World Communications Day, in the press room of the Holy See at the Vatican, January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

A brief Vatican statement on Wednesday said Francis had “accepted the resignation” of Monsignor Dario Vigano, Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication. A Vatican source said the Italian prelate had been urged to offer it.

The resignation was unusually swift by Vatican standards, coming little more than a week after the media ruckus started.

The scandal centered around Vigano’s handling of a missive to him from former Pope Benedict, 90, who resigned in 2013 and lives in near-isolation in the Vatican grounds.

Benedict’s letter was meant to remain private but Vigano read out passages at a presentation on March 12 of an 11-booklet series on the theology of Pope Francis, quoting the former pontiff as rejecting the “stupid prejudice” of those who criticised the learning of his successor.

Vigano released a photo of the first page, but the bottom part was blurred and most of the second page hidden by books. A press release also omitted a paragraph in which Benedict apologised for not having had the time to read all 11 volumes and thus declining a request to write an introduction.

FORMER POPE IRRITATED

The final paragraph, released for the first time on Saturday after a media leak, went further, showing that Benedict was clearly irritated by the fact German theologian Peter Hunermann had been chosen to write one of the volumes.

FILE PHOTO: A series of 11 booklets on The Theology of Pope Francis and a letter from former Pope Benedict, which was read out at the presentation of the work, are seen at the Vatican in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters March 15, 2018. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters/File photo.

Hunermann, Benedict said, had “led anti-papal initiatives” during his 2005-2013 papacy.

Vigano, 55, oversaw the Vatican’s communications departments, including its press office, radio, television and internet units after the pope decided to put them all under one umbrella in a much-touted 2015 reform.

In a letter dated March 19, Vigano told the pope he wanted to step aside for the good of the Church. The pope, in a response dated Wednesday, accepted the resignation “not without difficulty” and asked him to remain as an advisor to the department he once headed.

Three Vatican officials, speaking privately to Reuters, had criticised Vigano, saying he had violated the former pontiff’s trust and used Benedict’s letter to promote the publishing initiative.

Luis Badilla, head of the Vatican-affiliated and widely read website Il Sismografo, on Saturday called on Vigano to be removed, describing the letter episode as “a gigantic mess”.

Badilla said in an editorial that Vigano and the head of the Vatican’s publishing house, Father Bruno Cesareo, “have some explaining to do” and that “consequences must be drawn”.

In a statement on Saturday, Vigano’s department said there had been “in no way an attempt at censorship” and only what was “opportune and relative” had been released because the letter was private.

On Jan. 24, the pope issued a document condemning fake news as satanic, saying it led to the spread of arrogance and hatred.

Conservative critics of Francis saw the blurring of the photograph and Vigano’s selective use of the letter as part of a plot to censor the thoughts of the former pope.

Italian head of the Vatican communications department Dario Vigano attends a news conference to present the Pope's message for the 50th World Day of Social Communications at the Vatican, January 22, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Many conservative Catholics still look up to Benedict as a bulwark against liberals, and have lambasted Francis for being too lenient on divorced Catholics and homosexuals.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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