ROME – For many of the roughly 300 participants in the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, this is their first extended experience of the Vatican. As it happens, while they’re in town the place is more than living up to its reputation for intrigue, backstabbing and obscure developments that leave more questions open than they resolve.

On Monday, the Vatican announced the resignation of Domenico Giani, the 57-year-old commander of the Vatican gendarmes, after 13 years at the helm. His departure comes in the wake of the disastrous leak of an order signed by Giani regarding five Vatican employees who’d been suspended over allegations of financial wrongdoing, following a spectacular raid on the offices of two of the Vatican’s most sensitive departments, the Financial Information Authority and the Secretariat of State.

The affair has produced unusually open talk of a poisoned environment, from people who ought to know.

“Unfortunately, inside the Vatican a sense of loyalty and fidelity to the institutions is diminishing,” said Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a former number two official in the Secretariat of State and currently the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

“If we tear ourselves apart and attack each other amid hatreds and power struggles, then the sense of being Church is lost,” he said. The comment is especially striking given that one of the five people caught up in the raid, Monsignor Mauro Carlino, is a longtime aide to Becciu, and many observers suspect that Becciu is likely the ultimate author of whatever maneuver is under review.

Various Italian media outlets published photos of the five individuals at the center of the inquest. According to reports, Pope Francis was furious about the leak, especially because it’s not yet clear what, if anything, the five people involved actually did wrong.

A Vatican statement Tuesday said that although Giani “bears no subjective responsibility,” meaning he didn’t do it himself, the release of the confidential report was nevertheless “prejudicial to the dignity of the people involved and to the image of the Gendarmerie.”

Although there have been whispers for a while that Giani had lost Francis’s favor and might not be long for this world, most longtime Vatican-watchers were still caught off guard Monday because for years he’s been seen as the J. Edgar Hoover of the place, the top cop who simply had too much dirt on too many people to ever be fired.

Giani started off as an official of the Italian secret service, then joined the Vatican gendarmes in 1999 as the vice-inspector. Over his two decades as the Vatican’s supreme law enforcement officer, he acquired a reputation for dedication and hyper-vigilance, exuding a sort of “don’t mess with me” ethos that left most people reacting to a phone call from Giani the same way high school boys typically feel about a summons from the Dean of Men.

Earlier, this year I sat with a former Vatican employee who’d been fired as the result of an investigation led by Giani in the office of his attorney, who’s himself someone well known on the Vatican scene. The disgruntled ex-employee insisted at some length that he was innocent of any misconduct, claiming he’d been framed as part of a broader plot to disguise Giani’s own corruption.

When I asked why, if that’s the case, someone doesn’t challenge Giani, the ex-employee gave a classic Vatican answer: “He knows too much,” he said, eliciting vigorous nods of assent from his lawyer.

The would-be whistleblower – who, it must be said, proved either unwilling or unable to produce any actual evidence – proceeded to suggest that Giani was protected by senior clergy in the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s ultra-powerful coordinating department, in exchange for keeping the extra-curricular activities of those clergy quiet.

To be honest, I have no earthly idea if there’s any merit to those claims. What I do know is that it’s the sort of thing one heard over and over again about Giani, who had the reputation of being the Vatican’s ultimate bogeyman – the bare-knuckled guy a pope or a Secretary of State would send in when the aim was to scare someone to either death or submission, whichever came first.

For that reason, many Vatican-watchers were skeptical when rumors made the rounds last February that Giani was on his way out. The idea seemed semi-confirmed when a draft of a new apostolic constitution for the Vatican made the rounds which, among other things, would have clipped the wings of the commander of the gendarmes by separating some of the responsibilities that previously had been consolidated in his hands.

The claim was that Francis had become suspicious of Giani’s motives, especially in light of complaints that Giani had used money meant for the Gendarmes to spruce up his personal apartment to the tune of roughly $160,000, passing the funds through the Vatican museums in an operation eerily similar to the one that landed Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI, in hot water.

Yet as the months went by, most observers felt Giani had weathered the storm, and his survival only added to his aura of invincibility. In that light, it’s striking not only how quickly the end actually came, but also how soft the landing has been.

People have been given their exit papers by Francis before, but they’ve never been given the opportunity to defend their honor on the way out quite as Giani was on Monday, in an interview with the former Vatican spokesman and a current official of the communications department, Alessandro Gisotti.

“It’s a difficult moment, of great personal trial,” Gisotti wrote of Giani, “but lived interiorly with serenity, encouraged by the trust and support of the Holy Father, his family and so many coworkers and other people who, over the years, have known and appreciated his human and professional qualities.”

Then Giani eulogized himself.

“I’ve dedicated 38 years of my life to the service of institutions, first in Italy and then for 20 years in the Vatican, for the Roman Pontiff,” Giani said. “In these years I spent all my energies to assure the service entrusted to me. I tried to do so with self-denial and professionalism, feeling myself, as the Gospel two Sundays ago reminded us, to be a ‘useless servant’ that did his little part all the way to the end.”

As firings go, that’s about as sweet a sendoff as one can imagine. Nonetheless, given Giani’s history, optimists may read his ouster, no matter how gently couched, as creating an opening for change.

For a missionary from the Amazon who’s in town for the synod and watching all this play out, it’s probably a fair question what any of it has to do with the Gospel.

It remains to be seen if Francis will use the opportunity of Giani’s departure to rethink how law enforcement works in the Vatican, including whether possible reforms will prevent the emergence of other Hoover-esque personalities perceived as untouchable and therefore able to act with impunity – until, of course, the end comes for them too, as it does for us all.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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