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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.