Murder In The Vatican (Part 1)

With over a billion worshippers, the Roman Catholic Church is the second-largest religion in the world.  With its headquarters, the Vatican in Rome, it's one of the oldest and most secret institutions, which makes it a hotbed for conspiracy theories.  

In this episode of "Conspiracy," we examine the claims of shocking scandals and brutal murders surrounding the Roman Catholic Church. Was the Church guilty of killing its own Pope, John Paul I?  Was the Vatican in league with the Americans to help war criminals guilty of genocide escape justice?  And was the Vatican involved with the murder of the man known as "God's Banker"?

The Catholic Church has 2,000 years of scandalous history and intrigue hidden within its walls. History and intrigue which have led to the conspiracy theories we examine here. And because the Vatican is a sovereign country, it can police itself and, some claim, choose to hide its sins. When you have God on your side.

For many, the most damning claim of the Vatican's moral corruption started during the Second World War. On 6th April 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered Führer Directive number 25, the invasion of Yugoslavia. After a blitzkrieg lasting just 11 days, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia no longer existed.  Instead, Germany installed puppet governments across Europe, including one that ruled over most of what we now know as Croatia. In charge of this new state was an extreme fascist group known as the Ustaše. They were perhaps the most vicious fascists of them all, according to Professor John Pollard of Cambridge University.

The Ustaše's leader was ruthless Catholic Ante Pavelić, who, for 12 years, operated a lethal combination of fascist ideology and devout Catholicism, resulting in mass genocide, aimed at cleansing Croatia of all but Roman Catholics, even massacring the Christian Serbs. The Ustaše fell in 1945 when the German army collapsed, but the Catholic Church protected their own. While other fascists were being brought to trial for their war crimes, Ante Pavelić and the other leaders of this murderous regime miraculously disappeared from the country. And many believe the Vatican and the White House helped them escape.

At the end of the Second World War, the Communists were sweeping across Eastern Europe, arresting Nazi and Ustaše troops. The Ustaše knew, as fascists and Catholics, if they fell into Russian hands, there would only be one ending, Death. Lawyer Jonathan Levy has spent much of his career chasing compensation for victims of Nazi war crimes and tracked Pavelić's escape to the West, into friendly territory. His Minister of the Interior Artuković, the vice-president of Croatia, leaders of some of the elite units. With the blood of half a million on their hands, many claims there was only one place of safety.  The heart of the Catholic Church, where safe houses had been prepared for him. 

In Rome, the Allies were ready to capture any escaping fascists.  Special Agent William Gowen had been charged with arresting them on behalf of the US Army. Gowen claims Pavelić hid among thousands of Roman Catholic refugees headed straight for this Vatican-backed Croatian college in the heart of Rome. To get identity documents, to get a few free meals. Near the top of the Allies' arrest list, Pavelić needed a new identity fast, and that's what Gowen claims the priests of the college provided. They said, "Well, we'll tell you what we'll do. Providing Ante Pavelić with a baptismal certificate under a new name would allow him to get a new passport and make his escape out of Europe. But why would priests help a war criminal whose regime, Pollard claims, was more brutal than even the Nazis? For Catholics, particularly for Croatian Catholics. 

By the end of the war, the Communists were busy destroying the power of the Church across much of Eastern Europe. It's plain the Vatican was hoping Catholics, lead by men of faith like Pavelić, would be able to fight back. Gowen claims that Pavelić was indeed in Rome and that he was onto him.  But just before he could arrest him, Gowen was stopped in his tracks by a call from his superiors. Pavelić made his escape to South America, but it would take another 40 years  until Gowen discovered why he was ordered not to arrest Pavelić . And when he did, the trail led not just to the Vatican,  but directly to the White House too. The USA had decided, with the help of the Church, to save fascist war criminals from justice, in order that they'd help in the fight against the new enemy, communism. And conspiracists are convinced that the whole of the Vatican, not just a rogue priest, was behind this. Draganović was not a rogue priest. Monsignor Montini was the Pope's secretary. 


If John Pollard is right, then knowledge of the conspiracy goes right to the very center of the Vatican,  as Montini was himself elected Pope in 1963.  If the Vatican and the US government really had hoped that Pavelić would lead the fight against communism in Croatia, then they were disappointed. Instead, he lived out the rest of his life in Argentina and Spain, where he died in 1959. But the Church's war on communism continued and some say it almost cost a pope his life. 

In 1978, the Roman Catholic Church took the radical step of electing a non-Italian pope. He came from communist Poland. Visiting dozens of countries, this charismatic young pope, John Paul II, and his famous popemobile, became a worldwide superstar. Then, on 13th May 1981, gunshots rang out in St Peter's Square.  And three bullets slammed into his body, critically wounding him.  But was he the victim of a lone, crazed gunman or, as writer and security expert Nigel West believes, the victim of a sophisticated KGB plot to kill him because he was seen as a threat to the Soviet Union?

Cardinal Wojtyła, as Pope John Paul was then known, was born in Poland and rose to be Archbishop of Kraków. Right from the start, John Paul wanted to be seen as one of the people, rather than a distant, god-like figurehead. He had this charisma that appealed to the young. In his first four years as Pope, John Paul II reinvigorated the Roman Catholic Church.


But on 13th May 1981, he almost met his maker. Journalist Andrea Purgatori reported on the crime from the Vatican. It was a normal day for him. Twenty thousand Catholics had gathered inside the Vatican, just to catch a glimpse of their beloved Pope. But there was one man in the crowd with a darker motive.  Shot three times in the stomach, arm and hand, Pope John Paul II fell into the arms of his secretary and was rushed to hospital. The whole of Rome shut down and the Catholic faith went into mourning. The pope survived and the gunman, Ali Ağca, a Turkish citizen with extreme right-wing views, was arrested attempting to flee the scene.

Ali Ağca was convicted and sent to jail for life for attempting to assassinate the pope. He was the only man prosecuted for this crime, but many questioned his motives from the very beginning. Ali Ağca claimed to have been hired by a terrorist group and trained to kill to order in 1978.  But if Ali Ağca was a hired gun, he wasn't saying who paid him. His behavior, his various statements, many of them contradictory, created so much dust.  The police could not tell if Ali Ağca was playing a very clever game designed to confuse them, or if he was mentally unstable. 

 According to Nigel West, when the police reconstructed Ali Ağca's movements before the shooting, they revealed that, far from being a lone madman, he had the backing of a well-funded group. He was travelling to Sicily, Majorca, Perugia.  Papers found on Ali Ağca went further, to show where he'd found the money to travel around Europe. The contents of his pockets disclosed local telephone numbers. The numbers were for the offices of the Bulgarian embassy and the Bulgarian airline. And the most revealing number allegedly went straight to the heart of the Bulgarian government.     

But why Bulgaria, a communist satellite country in Eastern Europe with no formal links to the Vatican? This puzzles Cambridge University professor of history John Pollard. According to journalist Andrea Purgatori, the Bulgarian Secret Services operated as a hired gun for the KGB, carrying out operations on behalf of the Soviet Union at arm's length.    They were entitled to kill all the dissidents.

Why would the Soviet Union want to kill such a high-profile religious leader? 

The theory is that they feared Polish-born Pope John Paul II would provoke a revolution in Poland that would bring down the whole Eastern Bloc. They had then exchanged domination by the Nazis for domination by Moscow. Life was extremely difficult.  John Paul II had lived most of his adult life under a communist regime that suppressed his religion and he became an outspoken critic of communist atheism. His ordination as Pope came around the same time as his native Poland was beginning to demand political change through a new Catholic union movement called Solidarity.   

The pope was not just a figurehead for Solidarity. He threatened that in the event of a Soviet invasion, by 1981, demonstrations were breaking out across Poland, with 13 million people taking part in a national strike, and it seemed that Poland was on the verge of the civil war that the Soviets had been fearing. With their empire on the brink of collapse, Nigel West believes the Soviet Union had to act. And, in London, a plan was hatched,  that a questionnaire had been circulated by the chief of the First Chief Directorate, Vladimir Kryuchkov,  inviting senior management to make suggestions.

According to Nigel West, the KGB's head spy in London had asked for ways to kill the Pope. So, was the lone gunman who almost killed John Paul II really a fall guy for a desperate KGB plot  to prevent the Soviet Union being destroyed by a charismatic pope? 

Continue reading Part 2

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