The editor of a widely-read Italian daily newspaper owned by the bishops has resigned after a week of vitriolic attacks on him by powerful relatives and allies of Silvio Berlusconi, the erratic, authoritarian 72-year-old premier.
Dino Boffo's crime was to have criticised, in the pages of Avvenire, Berlusconi's notorious sexual antics which have gripped Italy since May, when his wife accused him of consorting with minors and said she was divorcing him. The lurid revelations were initially ignored by Avvenire, which for months kept a dignified silence. But Boffo came under fire for his silence from his readers, especially following the release of recordings of the media mogul in bed with a prostitute, and decided to speak out.
“People have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that this arrogant neglect of sobriety has caused the Catholic Church,” Boffo wrote in mid-August, before going on to ask a series of questions which he said Berlusconi must answer.
On 28 August a right-wing newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo, Il Giornale, ran the first of a week-long series of front-page stories on Boffo, accusing him of being homosexual and claiming that in 2004 he had paid a fine for harassing the wife of an unnamed man whom Il Giornale claimed had been his gay lover, adding that he was a homosexual "known to the police for this kind of activity".
Bishops quickly closed ranks around Boffo, leading to a sharp church-state standoff. A dinner planned by Mr Berlusconi with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was cancelled, as was a proposed meeting with the pope -- see my previous post here. The Italian bishops expressed “full confidence” in Mr Boffo and, some days later, the Vatican disclosed that the pope had conveyed his “esteem, gratitude and appreciation” to the head of the bishops’ conference over the affair -- words interpreted as signalling a strong disapproval of Berlusconi's family's behaviour.
Boffo, editor of the bishops' daily for 15 years, is highly regarded in church and journalistic circles. His resignation letter (in Italian) to Cardinal Angelo Bagnaso, president of the bishops' conference, is on the Avvenire website here.
It's intense, passionate stuff. For a whole week, he says, he has been at the centre of a "storm of gigantic proportions" which has filled the media and shows no sign of ending.
“My life, the life of my family and that of my newsroom have been violated in an unimaginable act of desecration", he says, following an "extraordinarily ferocious" assault which "has no reasonable, plausible or civil motive". He goes on to accuse a "a shadowy secularist power block" -- un opaco blocco di potere laicista -- of engineering a "diabolically conceived fiction".
Boffo, who is 57, has made clear he was -- unjustly -- fined for harrassment back in 2004, but there was never any suggestion of a homosexual element. According to Reuters: "Prosecutors in the harassment case against Boffo denied that any court document contained references to his sex life."
"I cannot accept that day after day there should be a war of words wrecking my family and increasingly stunning Italians", he says, before going on to thank the bishops and the many Catholics who had supported him. But he says his resignation is definitive.
"The Church has better things to do than strenuously defend one person, even if unfairly targeted," he tells Cardinal Bagnasco.
The Cardinal has accepted the resignation "with regret", expressing his "unchanged regard" for Boffo, who he says has been victim of "an indescribable media attack".
Vittorio Feltri, the editor of Il Giornale, is crowing, claiming his "first victory" in a battle against Berlusconi's critics. But the resignation is raising a storm among Italian journalists, who see this as free-speech issue, and further evidence of Berlusconi's abuse of power. As for the Church, the veteran Vatican correspondent for Reuters, Phil Pulella, thinks Rome will have the last laugh.