Vatican official steps down in battle over security of pope
By John Phillips
March 7, 2008
ROME – The Vatican official with primary responsibility for the safety of Pope Benedict XVI when he visits the United States next month has resigned in a turf battle between the Swiss Guard and a rival Italian security force over who gets to guard the pope.
Col. Elmar Theodore Maeder (above center photo being decorated) decided Wednesday not to seek a second five-year mandate as head of the pantalooned Swiss Guards, the smallest army in the world, according to Italian press reports independently confirmed by The Washington Times.
The disagreement stemmed from a proposal by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the powerful Vatican secretary of state, to deprive the Swiss Guards of their exclusive responsibility for security in the Apostolic Palace.
The building with a curved, column-lined facade that sits across St. Peter’s Square serves as the official residence of the pope in Vatican City.
Cardinal Bertone wants the Vatican’s other security force, the Vatican Gendarmerie, to guard the Apostolic Palace as well as other parts of the Vatican.
The change would end a centuries-old tradition of pike-wielding Swiss Guards protecting the pope, according to one newspaper report headlined: “Swiss Guard in crisis; The commander is leaving.”
“Maeder was waiting to see if he was asked to stay for a second term, but he heard nothing and decided not to ask for an extension,” a Vatican source told The Times. “Basically he is just fed up and decided to throw in the towel.”
Col. Maeder is expected to remain on the job in Rome for several months until a replacement is named on recommendation of the Swiss Intelligence Service.
But his imminent departure raises the question of who will have overall responsibility for Benedict’s safety during the pope’s visit to New York and Washington next month, which is expected to include a papal tour of ground zero.
In the past, the head of the Vatican Swiss Guard always traveled with the pope on overseas trips and took primary responsibility for coordinating with local security services with support from a small team of Vatican Gendarmes.
Col. Maeder still is expected to accompany Benedict to the United States, said the sources, but Cardinal Bertone may want the Gendarmerie to play a bigger role in planning security together with American counterparts, Vatican watchers said.
The Gendarmerie was founded in 1816 when the Vatican still ruled over all of Rome and a large swathe of central Italy.
But in recent years, the Gendarmerie largely has had a police role under the command of the governor of Vatican City since the gendarmes were demilitarized under Pope Paul VI.
“Their role seems to have been growing for some time,” the publication Secolo XIX wrote in a dispatch by its Vatican correspondent, Angela Ambrogetti.
The stress of defending the pope has led to a number of casualties in the past, raising debate about whether the Swiss Guard and Gendarmerie are anachronisms.
A young Italian Gendarmerie cadet, Alessandro Benedetti, was found dead from gunshot wounds in an apparent suicide in September.
In 1998, Vatican City was rocked by the triple shooting deaths of Alois Estermann, the then-head of the Swiss Guard, together with his Venezuelan wife and a young Swiss Guard lance corporal, Cedric Tornay.
The Holy See blamed Mr. Tornay for shooting the other two before turning his gun on himself.
There are about 150 Vatican Gendarmes in all on patrol in Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican-owned buildings in Rome outside Vatican City.
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