ROME – In what appears to be a new position, Monsignor Dario Viganò, the former head of Vatican communications forced to resign amid scandal in 2018, on Saturday was named “vice chancellor” of the Pontifical Academies for Sciences and Social Sciences.

The news was announced in an Aug. 31 communique from the Vatican, after rumors began to spread on social media.

Viganò’s appointment to such a high-profile position is significant after the “Lettergate” fiasco last year involving a botched attempt to disguise portions of a letter from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. A new position in the communications department was created for him while awaiting a new assignment.

Handpicked by Pope Francis to overhaul Vatican communications, Viganò last March came under fire when he released only part of a letter written by Benedict during the launch of a Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’s theological and philosophical background marking his 5th anniversary as pope.

Under Viganò, the Vatican communications department released a digitally altered photo of Benedict’s letter which showed comments praising Francis, but blurred portions of the text in which Benedict said he had not read the series due to other commitments, and so was unable to write a commentary.

A full version of the letter was later leaked to the Italian press, revealing that Benedict had also criticized the inclusion of a theologian who had been critical of himself and his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, sparking further outcry from those who accused Viganò of spreading “fake news.” The scandal also fed impressions of tension between the two popes, a narrative Francis has taken pains to combat.

The scandal, which prompted Viganò to resign, took place just weeks after the release of Francis’s 2018 message for the World Day of Communications, which was dedicated to condemning journalistic malpractice and “fake news.”

Francis tapped Italian layman Paolo Ruffini to take over as head of the communications department, but he kept Viganò on in the capacity of assessore, a type of advisory role which previously had not existed.

Six weeks after resigning, Viganò came under fire again after he gave a talk about fake news at a high-profile conference in Rome. During the April 28 panel, titled “Fake News and the Ethical Responsibilities of Media,” Viganò spoke on the importance of transparency in the media and said journalists who publish false or inaccurate information risk “poisoning” their readers, but said nothing about his own history.

Headed by Argentinian Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the academies for sciences and social sciences have had their own issues with communication.

Not only are most of their initiatives low-profile with little publicity, but the academies have often come under fire for the type of personalities they invite to speak during conferences held at the Vatican, including several scientific experts consulted for Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si.

Among those personalities is Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, who served as a special adviser to former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is a member of the academy and is known to promote population control.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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