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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Blood in the Vatican: A Fresh look at the Swiss Guard Murders

The Mysterious death of a Swiss Guard
Dr Clive Gillis

It was a glorious day in Umbria in 1998.  The present writer was travelling to Orvieto from Rome in a crowded train when his attention was suddenly drawn to the headline in the Italian national daily newspaper, La Repubblica, announcing in huge type: ‘Morte in Vaticano,’ and inside, ‘Sangue in Vaticano’.

It was not until the evening of the 5th of May that it became clear that it was not the pope who had been murdered.   Nevertheless, “the worst blood bath in more than a century” had occurred in the heart of Vatican City on the previous day.

As with most Vatican cover ups, it took years for the cracks to appear in the carefully fashioned story.  John Follain, The Sunday Times correspondent for Vatican affairs, has thrown new light on this cruel episode in his book City of Secrets 2003.   It must be said that Follain rejects the idea that John Paul I was murdered, and he may therefore be giving the Vatican more credit than it deserves in this instance too, but his work is otherwise first class.

Three bodies

Around 9pm on the 4th May, in the heart of Vatican City, a triple murder was discovered in the flat of the commander of the Swiss Guard Alois Estermann.  Estermann’s wife, “former model” Gladys Meza Romero, was the first to be discovered.  She had been shot.  Further inside, in the sitting room, Estermann was found shot through the cheek and neck.   Nearby, Lance Corporal Cedric Tornay was slumped over the gun which had killed all three.  He appeared to have put the gun in his mouth and discharged the contents of his cranium backwards.  There seemed no reason to seek for any further explanation; simply that Tornay murdered his Commander and his Commander’s wife who, unfortunately, was present, before taking his own life.

The Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard are basically Swiss mercenaries paid to defend the pope and the Vatican.  Just before the Reformation, St Peters’ Chair was occupied by a warring priest Julius II who used regularly to charge into battle clad in full armour.  Since the rest of the monarchs of Europe were well pleased with their Swiss mercenaries, Julius naturally wanted some too.  He acquired 150 in 1506.  Two are shown in a fresco by Raphael who was pressed into glorifying Julius military exploits.  The fresco can still be seen in Julius apartments where the guards are portrayed kneeling by the papal throne, which, at the first sign of trouble, the guards are supposed to grab with the pope still sitting in it, and run.

Today, the Swiss Guard, or more correctly the Cohors Pedestris Helvetiorum, are the pope’s only army.  The main papal army was overthrown with the papal states in 1870.  The Palatine and Noble guard were disbanded by Paul VI in the liberalising Vatican Council II era.  Besides the Swiss Guard, there is a domestic police force, the Vigilanza, and at the other end of the security spectrum, supplementing the general spying potential of every priest, hovers a shadowy secret service equivalent to the CIA or the KGB.

The Swiss Guard’s greatest defeat was during the Sack of Rome in 1527 when Clement VII escaped down his passata to the Castel St Angela leaving the guard to face terrible slaughter as St Peter’s was turned into a livery stables.

At the best of times the young men have easily become homesick to the heat and dirt of Rome which is in such contrast to the fresh air, mountain streams and forests of home.  However, even a short undistinguished spell of service in the Swiss Guard has traditionally opened doors for a subsequent career back home.

Mme Baudet

Tornay’s mother, Muguette Baudet, who is extremely proud of her son and still greatly distressed by the treatment both she and her son received at the hands of the Vatican, released to the press a picture of him standing in front of the war memorial inside Vatican City, commemorating the Sack of Rome.  The public have never seen this memorial, which consists of a graphic carved stone tableau of a soldier standing over two fallen figures.  Below, a Latin inscription states that, “they fell gloriously … defending the papacy to the utmost”, and below this in capitals PATRIA – MEMOR, “always remembered in their homeland”.  One suspects Mme Baudet is now less enthusiastic about the official Vatican newspaper photograph of her shaking hands with the pope, as her son, in full regalia, stood by on the day of his ceremonial swearing in.

Swearing in

The swearing in ceremony is not a difficult stage for recruits to reach.  The historical complement of Swiss Guard was 150 from Julius II’s time onwards.  But today, with the decline in respect for the papacy, the tendency of the young to travel, and the relative poverty of Italy compared with Switzerland making for low wages, the type of recruit tends to be more lowly.  The unit’s size is therefore smaller.  Eligible young men have to be 19-30 years old and of 174cm minimum height.  They must be Swiss Roman Catholics from Romanist families.  A note of recommendation from the parish priest completes their entry requirements.  Most young Swiss men want an exciting stay in Rome and resent being tied down to their Vatican quarters with a lot of restrictions.  So apart from zealous practising Romanists, the Vatican has to attract candidates as best it can.  A pension on leaving is certainly a useful asset in pursuing a further career.

Protestant mother

Usually Tornay had a Protestant mother who had been forced by her husband to bring him up as a Romanist in the strongly Roman Catholic part of Switzerland where he was born, and which traditionally supplies many recruits.  He was more interested in the military side of his career and such glamour as that would afford.  Certainly the solemn oath he took to “serve the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II and his legitimate successors, and also devote myself to them with all my strength sacrificing my life to defend them if necessary,” does demand of each guard that they should be ready to protect the pope from bullets using their own body as a shield. 

The risk of being in this situation is generally not thought high but Tornay who saw through the pettiness of the Vatican hierarchy and derided it in jest, certainly placed this military vow at the top of his own priorities.

Gone are the days when the commander was usually from one of the great Swiss aristocratic families.  Estermann, the 32nd commander, was from an ordinary background.

The recruitment document reads rather like a brochure for an adventure holiday.  “You are young, modern, lively, dynamic, athletic … Your ideal is a fascinating life … you are attracted by courageous acts … etc.”  When the author once went to the private area of the Vatican, the accompanying Swiss guard in his bright yellow uniform, tailored in house, carrying his halberd, was a delightful professional young man.  Open and genuine, his demeanour was in sharp contrast to the hard bitten Vatican hierarchy with their interdepartmental jealousies which left my access in doubt until the last minute.  No doubt, had his order “no video” been transgressed, there would have been swift reaction.

This was very much the sort of description of Tornay given to Follain in the journalist’s exhaustive interviews with those who knew him, both in Rome and back in Switzerland.  Furthermore it is most unlikely that a misfit would have gained the rank of Lance Corporal.

Cheap alcohol

Again, at the time of Vatican Council II, rifles were replaced by the historic halberds and breast plates, the main use of which was to charm pilgrims and tourists.  But the assassination attempt on the pope in 1981 suddenly reversed this decline of the force into a sideshow.  Once more there was an attempt to inject real fighting skill and discipline into a unit which in the late 60’s had become very dissolute.  This had not been helped by the general student unrest of 1968 and the fact that alcohol was very much cheaper in the Vatican state supermarket than over the border in Italy.  The state of the art Swiss pistol used by Tornay had only been introduced shortly before he joined.

‘Fit of madness’

By about midnight, Opus Dei press secretary Navarro Valls, with his imposing presence more riveting than that of many cardinals, had declared the act of Tornay to be a “fit of madness”.  A post mortem subsequently showed a small tumour 4cm x 2.5cm in the frontal lobe of Tornay’s brain.  This is an area of the brain which governs personality.  There were also traces of cannabis derivatives in his system.  The Vatican hastily seized upon both these facts as corroborative evidence to service their “fit of madness” theory.  On this basis Navarro Valls confidently elevated his brain storm theory to a “moral certainty”. 

And the circumstances in the hours prior to the slaughter could not have been more appropriate for a crime of sudden anger.  At midday on 4th May 1998, Estermann, was appointed commander of the unit with the usual ceremony.  Tornay was about to leave the guard and return home.  He had every expectation of receiving the coveted benemerenti medal for three years service.  His colleagues also expected him to get the award as he had after all become a Lance Corporal.  The same day he discovered quite casually from friends that his name was not on the posted list for the medal.  Only Estermann could be responsible for his being denied the honour.  He at once embarked on a course of frenetic activity now accurately pieced together by Follain, trying to contact anyone and everyone of importance concerning the medal and his failure to get the award.  When this did not yield results he apparently committed the murders in a fit of pique.  Not able then to face the consequences, he killed himself.  The Vatican was set fair to bury this scandal with ease.

Rumours begin to circulate

But the following year rumours began to leak out that there was more to this than met the eye.  Had Estermann been a spy in the Vatican for the Stasi, the East German secret police before the collapse of Communism?  Certainly such espionage went on in both camps.  Was Estermann a sodomite?  Was there a third gunman?  The Vatican stuck to its version and denied the infuriated Italian police access on grounds that the Vatican was extra-territorial.  A copy of the lengthy Vatican Bolletino 55/99 released on the 8th February 1999 lies before the author and stands firm for the “fit of madness” explanation.

The New York Times reported ten days later under the headline, “Vatican murder mystery stubbornly fixates Rome,” that the, “closure of the Vatican’s investigation into the murder of a Swiss Guard commander by one of his junior officers last week has done nothing to stop new cycles of rumour and speculation”.

The story would not go away.  The Baudet family hired top lawyers that the Vatican could not ignore.

On 7th August 2002 the Catholic Word News Service reported the capitulation: “The Swiss Guard killings returned to the headlines when Luc Brossolet said that the Vatican’s judicial system is marked by secrecy, silence, and abuse.  Brossolet and Jacques Verges are high-profile lawyers who have been hired by the Tornay family to press for a further investigation of the deaths.  The Vatican today issued a statement revealing that the petition brought by Verges and Brossolet is being examined by the Vatican tribunal.  This is a major setback to Rome.  However, the statement continued: ‘The offensive statements directed against the Holy See, Vatican City State, and its judicial bodies are totally unacceptable, in addition to lacking any foundation.”

The same article showed that the Vatican still stood by Bolletino 55/99, “After a 9- month investigation of the deaths, Judge Gianluigi Marrone of the Vatican Tribunal .. …. found no evidence to support a series of sensational charges that had been aired in the Italian media, suggesting that the killings might have been linked to drug traffic, homosexual affairs, or other scandals …”

To learn what really lay behind Tornay’s despair, do not miss our next issue.

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