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Posted Thursday, July 15, 2004 at 8:55 a.m. CDT

Peru's cardinal says he is victim of smear campaign
Declares himself 'completely convinced' other bishops are involved

By John L. Allen Jr.
Lima, Peru

When a civil investigation now underway is finished, Peru's Opus Dei cardinal believes it will demonstrate that a remarkable, if rather inept, "dirty tricks" campaign against him was orchestrated by elements within the Catholic church, including some of his fellow Peruvian bishops.

Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani
Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, generally seen as an arch-conservative, also says that if the truth does come out, it will be despite Vatican pressure to sweep matters under the rug.

Cipriani, 61, one of two Opus Dei members in the College of Cardinals, spoke to NCR in a July 11 interview at his residence in Lima.

The story, which resembles a potboiler novel, begins in October 2001, when the then-Minister of Justice in the Peruvian government, Fernando Olivera, secretly carried three letters to the Vatican. The letters, which later emerged as forgeries, suggested links between Cipriani and the infamous Vladimiro Montesinos, head of the Peruvian security forces under former President Alberto Fujimori.

Olivera met with Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the number two official in the Secretariat of State, allowing Sandri to see the letters but stating that he was not authorized to turn them over.

One of the letters was allegedly written by Cipriani, the other two by the papal nuncio in Peru, Archbishop Rino Passigato. The letter with Cipriani's signature purportedly showed him asking for the "elimination and incineration" of videotapes showing him with Montesinos. The others thanked Montesinos for a contribution of $120,000 and asked for more money.

Cipriani is widely seen in Peru as critical of the current president, Alejandro Toledo, and hence the motive for transmitting the letters to the Vatican, in the eyes of most observers, was to discredit Cipriani. Since the nuncio is seen as subservient to Cipriani, he too, or so this theory runs, was targeted.

The letters, however, turned out to be fakes, and were later acknowledged as such by the Toledo government. The question now is who was behind the effort, and why. Cipriani told NCR that he knows the answer.

"There are bishops involved," he said bluntly, describing himself as "completely convinced." He declined to name names, but described in detail how he believes the operation was carried out.

"We know very clearly where those letters were in the national conference," Cipriani said. "We know who worked there, we know who took them away to borrow the signature. They have done a handwriting analysis and now it is very clear.

"Of course the bishops involved, one of them, he says this isn't true, but I've heard it from many people first-hand," Cipriani said.

Further, Cipriani said, the Vatican is trying to block the civil investigation in order to avoid scandal. The instructions, he said, came in a letter two months ago from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, to the nuncio, Passigato.

"It said, please, look for a peaceful resolution to this problem," Cipriani said. "But you see what happened in the States, for not facing the truth."

Cipriani expressed confidence that the investigation would proceed.

"They cannot block it, but they are trying," he said.

Auxiliary Carlos García Camader of Lima, who is not an Opus Dei member, told NCR July 12 that he agrees the letters were falsified by someone in the church.

"I don't have any proof, but it appears to be that way," he said.

García said he believes the civil investigation will produce the truth.

"I think the truth must come out, and not just for the reputations of the cardinal and the nuncio, but for the good of the whole church," he said. "The people don't know what the truth is, and those who disseminated this lie want a smokescreen for covering immoral situations that they don't want revealed."

In yet another stunning twist, Cipriani claims that 2001 was not the first time he was the object of a black-bag operation. He said that in 2000, another false letter was manufactured with his signature, this time allegedly addressed to the Vatican's Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

"It was sent to the Holy See saying that I was blaming my auxiliary bishop who has already died, [Alberto Aurelio] Brazzini, saying he was immoral as had been Cardinal [Juan] Landázuri before," Cipriani said. "It was a very dirty report."

Cipriani said the faked signature on the 2000 letter was the same one on the letters of 2001 now being investigated, meaning that the same bishop was involved. He said he has never spoken of this other faked letter before.

"I haven't said it to the police or to anybody, but this has been tried at a lower level inside of the conference," he said.

Cipriani told NCR that while the Vatican accepted that the letter to Sodano was fake, it did so only after some hesitation. He said he was called in to discuss the matter during the 2001 Synod of Bishops.

"It was the first time I really felt myself questioned in the holy church," Cipriani said. "How come? You don't trust me? You think I could be involved in this? But OK, you want facts, OK. I had to look for facts. We got all the facts and sent them to the Secretariat of State."

Fake letters have not been the only crisis for Cipriani, who is lightning rod for controversy in Peru.

In recent months, he has been publicly accused of involvement in the "assassination" of his predecessor, Cardinal Augusto Vargas, even though most observers believe that Vargas died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Cipriani was also linked in press accounts to a famous massacre of teachers during the years of Shining Path terrorism in Peru, another charge he has vociferously denied.

"It's one lie after another, for 16 years," Cipriani said. "Many of these lies come from inside [the church], not from outside. For me this really hurts."

The investigator handling the falsified letters case is expected to deliver his report to a Peruvian judge by the end of July. The judge will then decide whether anyone will be prosecuted.

John L. Allen Jr., NCR Rome correspondent, was in Peru on assignment July 6-13. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2004

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