April 4, 2009


A Quiet Death in Rome: Was Pope John Paul I Murdered? (Sandra Miesel, 4/01/09, Inside Catholic)

Unfortunately, errors and obfuscations by Vatican sources gave rumors room to grow. A key problem, from the initial report issued by Cardnal Villot to a memorandum from the Commission for Social Communications in 1984, was the Vatican's prudish unwillingness to admit that the Holy Father had been found dead by Sister Vincenza and not by a secretary. The public might be scandalized by a nun -- however elderly -- in the papal bedroom.

Cornwell examines Yallop's points of suspicion and refutes each one. To allow for a cleanup of the evidence, Yallop's murder theory requires that the pope's body be found at 4:30 or 4:45 a.m., one hour earlier than official reports estimated. He bases this on an early story by the Italian news service ANSA that garbled the time and misrepresented the layout of the papal apartments. Yallop also claims to have had testimony from Sister Vincenza to this effect but refused to show Cornwell his transcripts.

Both papal secretaries and a confidante of the late Sister Vincenza insist that the body was discovered about 5:30 a.m. The nun noticed that the coffee she had left outside the pope's bedroom door a few minutes earlier, as per his morning routine, had not been touched. She went through two sets of doors and parted a curtain to find John Paul dead on his bed with a light on and reading material in his hands. Magee was summoned first, then Lorenzi. They found rigor mortis already beginning to set in and tore the pope's cassock while preparing his private laying-out. This supports the official estimate for time of death as 11 p.m. the previous evening. Yallop's theory requires the pope to be freshly dead at 4:30 a.m. since digitalis administered the night before would have taken hours to work.

The cause of death was listed with unseemly haste as myocardial infarction by Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, now Pope John Paul II's personal physician. He had never examined John Paul I and asked no questions about symptoms. (Heart attack would be most unlikely to leave a victim in such a composed posture.) No autopsy was performed, as the last pope autopsied was Pius VII in 1830. Yallop suggests a "secret" autopsy while John Paul was lying in state, but what he refers to was a simple retouching of the corpse. Yallop claims no death certificate was issued; Cornwell reproduces it.

Yallop also claims that the undertakers were summoned at 5 a.m. before the official finding of the body, but this is based on an incorrect news story taken from garbled secondhand information. The Vatican carpool log shows the embalmers were sent for at 5:15 p.m. The procedure began about 7 p.m.

Yallop questions the disappearance of incriminating personal effects, supposedly removed by Cardinal Villot. He thinks John Paul's slippers and glasses might have been stained with vomit caused by the digitalis poisoning. But Cornwell finds that the pope's sister took them. His last will was a brief document bequeathing his goods to a Venetian convent, not a spiritual testament (as claimed by Yallop).

Yallop's one damning datum was a Swiss Guard's observation of Marcinkus on foot lurking near the papal residence at an unusually early hour on the morning of the pope's death. But the guardsman, Hans Roggen, told Cornwell that his testimony was taken deceptively and misrepresented. Marcinkus was a demonstrably early riser and had driven in at his usual time. And contrary to Yallop's accusation, Roggen had not been asleep at his post.

Having demolished Yallop's evidence, Cornwell offers his own explanation. After conferring with a cardiac specialist and a forensic medicine expert, he rules out heart attack, congestive heart failure, and aneurysm in favor of pulmonary embolism as the cause of John Paul's death. If the pope's body is exhumed someday during a canonization process, an autopsy could clarify the cause of death, but this would never be permitted.

Cornwell clinches his case with symptoms the pope suffered on his last day alive. After a normal morning, John Paul complained of feeling unwell after his siesta but didn't permit Magee to call a doctor. While taking his daily walk that afternoon, he suffered a violent cough and pain -- probably a minor embolism -- but again forbade Magee to summon aid. That evening the pope conferred with Cardnal Villot for more than an hour in his study. They did not argue, according to Magee. Afterward, the pope reported great pain that soon passed. Again, he refused to consult a doctor. John Paul dined with his two secretaries just before 8 p.m. Death came up for discussion, and the pope prayed for resignation to death. After dinner, he rushed down the hall to take a telephone call from Giovanni Cardinal Columbo of Milan until 9:15. This run likely triggered the fatal embolism that struck after the pope went to bed. Cornwell summarizes events thus: "John Paul I wanted to die, the conditions conveniently prevailed, [and] the spectators did not rush forward to prevent him."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 6:30 AM
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