- guardian.co.uk, Saturday 5 September 2009 13.00 BST
It has to be a first. A newspaper owned by the family of a prime minister has forced the resignation of the editor of another paper belonging to the Catholic church. For those of you who like moral conundrums, the resulting, angry debate is a hum-dinger – the ethical equivalent of Killer Sudoku.
On Thursday, Dino Boffo, the long-standing editor of Avvenire, a daily owned by the Italian Bishops' conference, resigned. Six days earlier, Il Giornale, which belongs to Silvio Berlusconi's brother, Paolo, had published on its front page a story that in 2004 Boffo had paid a fine for harassing a woman it said was the wife of his homosexual lover.
There are two points to make about this story. The first is that, at least in part, it has been stood up. At the time the calls were made the woman in question was not in fact married and there was nothing in the sentence that bears out its claim that Boffo was a "noted homosexual". But it nevertheless says that he was fined (just over EUR 500) for "making repeated calls on his telephones in the course of which he abused [the woman], alluding to sexual relations with suo compagno". The last two words are ambiguous. They could mean "her partner" or "his partner", though in either case the partner would have to be male.
The second point, however, is that nothing Il Giornale published was new. The sentence was first mentioned on a blog in 2005 and last year it was reported by another Berlusconi publication, the news magazine, Panorama (though tucked away at the end of a story about a different, related subject). Non-Italian readers may find it odd that no other news organisation pounced on this aside to ask probing questions about the private life of the editor of a newspaper which, more than any other in Italy, tries to influence the private life of its readers. But the fact is that only Il Giornale did so – more than a year and a half later.
Why drag it up again now? The paper's editor said he was launching a campaign to "unmask the moralisers" – an apparent reference to the fact that Avvenire, as might be expected of a Catholic daily, had written a couple of editorials rebuking Silvio Berlusconi for his controversial private life. The prime minister himself dissociated himself from what Il Giornale had published.
But his supporters have been making hay with the first point, arguing that people in glass houses etc. His opponents, of course, lay emphasis on the second, claiming that Berluisconi was abusing his family's media power to execute a ruthless vendetta, not just against a newspaper but the Church, with whom his relations are now at an unprecedented low point.
The bishops had openly rallied around Boffo before he stepped down and the Vatican then pointedly revealed that the pope had conveyed his appreciation to the head of their conference. So the editor's departure leaves them all looking distinctly silly, though he denied the suggestion of a homosexual relationship and claimed he had stepped down because of the strain that the allegations had placed on his paper and his family.
Boffo also claims he was unjustly convicted in the court case and that the calls were made by a member of his staff who has since died. But the judge did not believe that story. And a reporter for La Repubblica who investigated the affair in 2006 thought it "strange" (though the paper decided eventually not to publish anything).
Boffo's employers, the bishops, did apparently believe their editor, however. And perhaps they were right to do so. Maybe he was the victim of a travesty of justice. But the fact is that by leaving him in his post they were offering a hostage to fortune – a ready-made victim who could be picked off by anyone who felt like embarrassing the Catholic church at a time of his or her choosing.
It is not often Italian clerics leave themselves open to the accusation of naivety. But in this case they have.