The head of the Vatican's communications department resigned Wednesday after he mischaracterized a private letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI, then had a photo of it digitally manipulated and sent out to the media.
A week after The Associated Press exposed the doctored photo, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Monsignor Dario Vigano and named his deputy to run the Secretariat for Communications for now. But Francis kept Vigano on in the department in a lesser capacity, indicating that he doesn't believe the problem was all that grave.
The so-called "Lettergate" scandal erupted last week when Vigano read aloud part of a private letter from Benedict at a book launch for a Vatican-published, 11-volume set of books about Francis' theology.
Marking Francis' fifth anniversary as pope, Vigano had held up Benedict's letter as a sign of the continuity between the two popes, to blunt critics who complain that Francis' mercy-over-morals papacy represents a theological break from Benedict's doctrine-minded, theology-heavy papacy.
Vigano didn't read the whole letter, and omitted the part where Benedict objected to one of the authors in the volume because he had been a longtime critic of Benedict and St. John Paul II. A press release sent out by Vigano's office only contained Benedict's words of praise for Francis and the book initiative, without mentioning that he hadn't even read the books and had no plans to.
The AP reported that the photograph of the letter that accompanied the press release had digitally blurred out the lines where Benedict began to explain that he didn't have time to read the books and wouldn't comment on them, as requested by Vigano. The photo manipulation violated basic photojournalism ethical standards that forbid such distortion, especially when it misrepresents the content of the image.
The scandal embarrassed the Vatican and led to accusations that the pope's own communications office was spreading "fake news," just weeks after Francis dedicated his annual media message to denouncing "fake news" and the intentional distortion of information. Francis has frequently chided journalists for only giving half of the story.
In his resignation letter dated March 19, Vigano said he wanted to step aside so that his presence "wouldn't delay, damage or block" Francis' reform of the Vatican's communications operations.
He didn't acknowledge that he had misrepresented Benedict's letter or doctored the photo, saying only that he realized that his actions — despite his intentions — had created controversy and destabilized the communications reform.
In his own letter accepting the resignation, Francis said he was removing Vigano reluctantly and praised him for his humility and willingness to work for the good of the church. He asked Vigano to stay on in the communications secretariat in the new position of "assessor," which in Vatican offices usually amounts to the No. 3 spot.
The current No. 2, Monsignor Lucio Adrian Ruiz, will run the office until a new prefect is named.
It is rare for the Vatican press office to release such an exchange of letters, suggesting that the pope wanted to make clear that he still has faith in Vigano to help oversee the consolidation of the Vatican's vast media operations.
Francis named Vigano, an expert in film, to head the new Secretariat for Communications in 2015. The department was created to bring under one umbrella the Vatican's various media operations, to cut costs and improve efficiency. But Vigano's reforms and management style soured relations with many longtime employees.
After the AP revealed the doctored photo and another Vatican commentator, Sandro Magister, hinted that there was even more in the letter that Vigano had concealed, the communications office released the full text of Benedict's letter, which had been sent to Vigano by the retired pope as "personal" and "reserved," suggesting that it was never meant to be made public.
The previously concealed part of the letter provided the full explanation why Benedict had declined Vigano's request that he write a commentary on the books: In addition to saying he didn't have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project, German theologian Peter Huenermann, had launched "virulent" and "anti-papist" attacks against papal teaching during Benedict's papacy. He wrote that he was surprised the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume "The Theology of Pope Francis."
In the parts of Benedict's letter that Vigano read during the book launch and included in the press release, Benedict confirmed that Francis has a solid theological and philosophical training and he praised the book initiative for showing the "interior continuity" between the two papacies. He wrote it was "foolish prejudice" to paint Francis as only a practical man devoid of theology and Benedict as a mere academic who knew nothing of the lives of ordinary faithful.
But Benedict's full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano's presentation, press release or accompanying photo. That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn't.
As a result, Vigano's effort to show papal continuity effectively backfired. Benedict's harsh criticism of Huenermann laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes, and showed the retired pope still bore something of a grudge.