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Italy: All the Pope's Gentlemen

Inside an exclusive papal "club" shrouded in mystery and scandal.

Although jailed in February, he is still at the center of a sprawling corruption investigation involving state procurement agencies and the organization of "major events," such as the Italy-hosted G8 summit of 2009 in earthquake-stricken L'Aquila. More embarrassingly, a wiretap showed that he had enlisted a Vatican chorister to procure male prostitutes for him, including at least one seminarian.

Balducci is not the first Papal Gentleman to end up in jail. In 1989, Italian police arrested businessman Umberto Ortolani, who had been involved with the P2 secret masonic lodge that, according to Italian judges, aimed to subvert democracy in the country, and was also involved in other shady business activities.

One such shady affair is the bankruptcy of the Banco Ambrosiano, which led to the mysterious suicide of banker Roberto Calvi in London in 1982 and which involves the Vatican Bank, the IOR.

A Gentleman since 1963, Ortolani is, to date, the only person to have been "canceled" from the exclusive list. (Balducci is still a member.)

Other Papal Gentlemen have raised eyebrows, including the Lichtenstein-born financier Herbert Batliner, who invented the “family foundations” system used by wealthy European families to avoid taxation on their rich estates. He donated hundreds of thousand of euros for the restoration of ancient organs in the Sistine Chapel and in Regensburg, Germany. In 2006, he met Pope Benedict XVI there while under investigation for tax-evasion charges amounting to 250 million euros ($324.66 million), thanks to a special safe-conduct granted by German prosecutors.

Politically, it can be safely said that Gentlemen tend to align with the right: Gianni Letta, Silvio Berlusconi's right-hand man and chief negotiator, received the "biglietto" in 2005.

Another Gentleman, Italo-Argentinian senator and former ambassador to the Vatican Esteban Caselli, has emerged apparently unscathed from many trials and investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, and has now announced he will run for president of Argentina in 2011. His newly founded party is named "Pueblo de la Libertad" — People of Freedom — just like Silvio Berlusconi's party in Italy.

When asked about Papal Gentlemen and their selection, Luigi Accattoli, who covered the Vatican for decades for Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, jokingly said that, on this topic, he “dares to give an advice to pope Benedict”: now, he said, would be a good time to “get rid of all the antiques, coat-tails and golden crosses” and finally bring to completion what Paul VI had started, canceling Papal Gentlemen for good.

But this is hardly going to happen, Vatican sources said. After all, they recall, it is Benedict XVI that, in an audience to Papal Gentlemen in 2006, reassuringly told them that “to continue forward, the boat of Peter needs many hidden hands who, together with others who are more visible, contribute to its keeping a straightward course.”