The Smell of Death
by Mark Fellows
originally published in the Catholic Family News, November 3, 2003
It was a rainy night in Vatican City. A young man ran across the courtyard near the Apostolic Palace. Passing under the lighted apartment of Pope John Paul II, he entered the barracks of the Swiss Guard next to the Palace. He wore jeans, and inside his black leather jacket was a gun.
A nun heard him pounding up the stairs, looked, but saw nothing. The man knocked on the apartment door of Alois Estermann and was let in by Estermann‘s wife, Gladys Meza Romero. He took three steps into the apartment, saw Estermann talking on the phone, and shot him twice at close range, killing him. Turning, he fired two shots at Romero, killing her. Dropping to his knees, he put his gun, a Swiss made 9mm SIG pistol, in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
His name was Cedric Tornay. He was a lance corporal in the Vatican Swiss Guard, the small army responsible for guarding the pope. The man he killed, Alois Estermann, had just been appointed Commander of the Swiss Guard. The motives behind the murder-suicide, and whether it really was a murder-suicide, continue to be debated today, five years after the sad event of May 4, 1998. It is the subject of a new book by Vatican reporter John Follain, City Of Secrets, The Truth Behind The Murders At The Vatican (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003).1
While the exact circumstances of that fateful night remain disputed, the Vatican appears to have had immediate certainty about what happened. Within minutes of the murder, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls sealed the Estermann’s apartment. No one was allowed near the scene of the crime, including the Italian police. Within three hours, and before an autopsy, Navarro-Valls issued the following statement on behalf of the Vatican:
“The Captain Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Colonel Alois Estermann, was found dead in his home together with his wife, Gladys Meza Romero and Vice corporal Cedric Tornay. The bodies were discovered shortly after 9pm by a neighbour from the apartment next-door who was attracted by loud noises. From a first investigation it is possible to affirm that all three were killed by a fire-arm. Under the body of the Vice corporal his regulation weapon was found. The information which has emerged up to this point allows for the theory of a “fit of madness” by Vice corporal Tornay. (pp. 14-15)”
Autopsies were performed the next day by Vatican doctors, who were sworn to secrecy, and kept no written reports of their conclusions. Of course, autopsies cannot determine a corpse’s state of mind; yet it was curious that Navarro-Valls was able to discern so quickly that Tornay, a man he had never met, suffered from madness.2 The evening following the murder Cardinal Alfons Stickler publicly described Tornay as “an individual suffering from the psychological disorder of paranoia,” another interesting diagnosis from someone who had never met Tornay (p. 17). It was also alleged that Tornay was high on marijuana at the time of the murders.
If Tornay was in fact mad or a drug addict, his promotion to lance corporal of the Swiss Guard is difficult to explain. Tornay had served in the Guard for over three years, and his responsibilities as lance corporal included being in charge of all the guards deployed in the Apostolic Palace (where the Pope lives) and monitoring St. Anne’s gate, the key entry point into Vatican territory. Moreover, Tornay was spoken well of by former guards who served with him.3
So one can conclude that the Vatican’s statement concerning Tornay, issued only three hours after his death and before an autopsy, suffered either from a lack of information, or perhaps from knowing too much.
If the Vatican showed no hesitation in their negative conclusions about Tornay - and given the circumstances, perhaps this is understandable - they were equally quick to eulogize Alois Estermann as a faithful servant of the Church. L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, and Joaquin Navarro-Valls claimed that Estermann had risen quickly in the ranks of the Swiss Guard to become the chief bodyguard of Pope John Paul II, accompanying the pope on over thirty trips around the world. He was even credited with shielding John Paul‘s body from the assassin Agca in 1981, a claim which was later proved false.4 “I have two passions, the military and the Church,” the Swiss-German Estermann was quoted as saying, “and the Swiss Guard brings them together. (p. 18)” So well thought of was Estermann that he was asked by the Church to research the life of Nicolai Wolf, a Swiss layman being considered for canonization.5
Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano performed the requiem Mass for Estermann and his wife (they were childless) at St. Peter’s Basilica, a rare honor for laymen. In his homily Sodano said, “In times like these we feel above all the need to be silent. (p. 21)” Meanwhile, on the border of Vatican City, in the small Church of St. Anne, a private funeral Mass was said for Cedric Tornay. Inside a line of Swiss Guards, some of them visibly emotional, allowed a gap for the space where Tornay usually stood. Outside stood an overflow crowd of confused, mourning friends.
Cardinal Sodano’s “need to be silent” appears to have been applied in a special way to Tornay’s mother, Muguette Baudat. Her life had not been easy, even before her son’s death. Twice married, twice divorced, abandoned by her first husband and beaten by her second, she raised her children Catholic even though she was a Protestant.6 She met the Pope once, briefly, when Cedric began his duties in the Swiss Guard. After his death she wrote to the pope twice, questioning the Vatican’s version of Tornay’s death, and received no answer.
“From the start, says Baudat, “I was the victim of pressures, manipulation, dissimulation, and lies. (p. 47)” She claimed that Vatican officials tried to prevent her from coming to Rome for Tornay’s funeral. In an effort to keep her away, Monsignor Jehle, chaplain of the Swiss Guard, allegedly told Baudat that Tornay’s head had been ripped off his body. John Follain asked a Vatican monsignor why Jehle would say such a thing. “Because he was told to,” the monsignor answered, “by my boss. (p. 65)”
The monsignor’s boss is Cardinal Sodano, who also prevented Muguette Baudat from access to the completed Vatican inquiry into the deaths. But didn’t the pope have anything to say about the matter? According to the monsignor,
“You must be joking. His Holiness just went along with what Sodano cooked up. The Holy Father is so ill he’s become a prisoner of the Curia. You realize, he’s had five operations since the assassination attempt in 1981. Now he takes this drug against Parkinson’s disease; its called elodea and the side effects make him feel good one minute and shattered the next. Oh, and add to that confusion, paranoia, and hallucinations. But no one will ever admit it; the Holy Father has to appear in control, otherwise his courtiers go down with him…So Dziwisz, his secretary, does all he can to make JP appear in control, but at night he’s woken up by his boss, struggling to get up and pray when he is in pain. (p. 66)”
If the monsignor is correct, the heartless decision not to respond to Baudat’s letters about her son‘s death may not have been made by the pope. And whatever one thinks of the Holy Father, it is difficult to imagine him sending an envoy to Switzerland to threaten Muguette Baudat. Here is her version of this meeting:
“He wanted to find out how much I knew and what I planned to do about it. He gave me a rosary, but he also threatened me in the name of his superiors, telling me I should stop asking about Tornay’s death and think of my surviving children. He said he was sure I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them. That’s a threat isn’t it? (p. 175)”
Her encounters with the Catholic Church, if true, seem more like encounters with the Mafia. To add to the intrigue, a year before he died Tornay confided to his mother that he and two other Swiss Guards were investigating Opus Dei. The less you know about it, the better, he told her. “Later,“ said Baudat, I found out from some friends of Tornay that Estermann was close to Opus Dei and had tried to recruit guards into it. (p. 47)“
In speaking of the Vatican’s actions following the murders, the Vatican monsignor observed: “There’s one common thread running through this, and it’s the Opus Dei movement. The Estermann’s were both close to it. Navarro-Valls is a member, and he was very fast in getting to the scene of the crime when he was alerted. And the Holy Father’s shadow, Dziwisz, is said to be supportive of Opus Dei. Given the movement’s taste for secrecy, all these people are going to follow the principle that the less said the better. (p. 67)”
It should be pointed out, however, that the behaviors of some Churchmen following the murder-suicide exceeded a certain understandable prudent silence. It extended to accusing Tornay of being mad or on drugs, and lying to, threatening, and withholding information from Tornay’s grieving mother.
The Swiss Guard
The original Swiss Guard were mercenary Swiss soldiers commissioned by Pope Julius in 1505 as his personal guard. Julius admired the fighting skill of the Swiss, whose foot soldiers were able to repulse even cavalry charges by the use of the halberd. This long, pike-like weapon is carried by today‘s Swiss Guard as an ornamental, but in past centuries it was put to brutal use. The business end of the halberd sports a curved axe which was used to cut a horse‘s legs, a hook used to dismount a rider, and a long spike to run him through with.
Switzerland outlawed mercenary soldiering by its citizens in 1874, but made an exception for the Vatican Swiss Guard. Through the centuries Guards gave their lives for the pope on a number of occasions, a duty contained in their oath. Requirements for membership were simple: male Swiss Catholics who have completed military basic training, are between nineteen and thirty years of age, and over five feet eight inches in height. Since the deaths of the Estermann’s and Tornay, requirements for admission to the Guard have stiffened.
The Swiss Guard is often viewed as merely decorative due to their brightly colored, Renaissance style uniforms, helmets, breastplates, and halberds. But the Guard is the main (not only) security force in Vatican City, and their duty remains, as ever, to protect the pope. Recruits are less mercenary than in the past (the pay is about $1,000 a month, plus room and board). Some Swiss Catholics see the Guard as a religious calling. Others are attracted by the chance to travel and build their resume.
Both Estermann and Tornay were attracted by the religious aspect of the Swiss Guard, Estermann perhaps more than Tornay. Much younger than Estermann, Tornay was still, by most accounts, idealistic and a positive addition to the Swiss Guard. “He had a heroic side to him,“ an ex-Guard said. “I have absolutely no doubt that he believed in the oath. Tornay really would have given his life to save the pope. (p. 195)“
Although they are all Swiss, there is a significant language and cultural barrier between Guard members who are Swiss German and those who are Swiss French. The German speaking Guard members, which included Estermann, were a solid majority. Tornay and the other French speaking guards were a minority, and often complained of harassment by their German speaking countrymen, particularly Estermann. An ex-Guard and friend of Tornay’s recalled: “Estermann couldn’t stand having French speakers around; he’d always tell us: ’You Swiss French are completely out of place in the Swiss Guard. There is no room for you here. (pp. 210-211)’”
Another ex-Guard asserts: “Tornay was a victim. He wasn’t (of) a violent nature, but he was the victim of bullying for three years…for the Swiss Germans he was the devil in person. (pp. 219-20)”
Estermann was the only officer to vote against Tornay’s promotion to lance corporal, and he was overruled. When Estermann assumed a position of authority over Tornay, the persecution began in earnest, according to ex-Guards. “Tornay was a great guy,” said one of them, “and the Vatican blackened his name when he could no longer speak for himself. The truth is that he was no better and no worse than others as far as discipline went…Estermann was always hounding him. (p. 210)”
Why did Tornay stay? He had personal and professional reasons for wanting to receive the benemerenti medal, awarded to guards with three years of service. He must have wanted the medal very badly in order to persevere under distressing work conditions. Which raises another question. Do the cultural differences between Estermann and Tornay fully explain the tension between them?
Enter the shadowy figure of Yvon Bertorello. A former student at Econe Seminary, Bertorello became a thirty-something member of Vatican intelligence. He traveled to hot spots around the world, not as a diplomat, but as an information gatherer - a spy (p. 45).
One of his local assignments7 was to spy on the Swiss Guard to gauge the extent to which Opus Dei had infiltrated it. To this end he befriended the high-spirited, plain spoken Tornay - a most unlikely spy. Bertorello‘s choice may have been dictated by Tornay‘s young age, which would make him more easily influenced, and the fact that both Bertorello and Tornay spoke French. At any event, Tornay became Bertorello‘s agent. While it was not known if Estermann was aware of Tornay’s mission, he could have found out either from Opus intelligence, or because Tornay was not a very effective spy. Opus Dei’s tendency to run roughshod over enemies may explain Estermann’s maltreatment of Tornay, a point Follain doesn‘t treat in his book.
Opus Dei has refused to comment publicly on the deaths, or Estermann’s involvement with them. It seems evident, however, that despite his denials Estermann was an Opus Dei member, given his recruitment efforts, his wife’s close relationship with Opus, and the unanimous belief among the Guard that Estermann belonged to Opus. An insider said that this caused Estermann’s promotion to Commander to be blocked: “Many people in the Vatican feel that Opus Dei has got its finger in too many pies. There’s so much intrigue in the Vatican, so many factions…”8
Although it is unlikely that John Paul II would have blocked the rise of an Opus Dei member, it is said he hesitated to approve Estermann’s promotion due to rumors of Estermann’s homosexuality.9 Eventually Cardinal Sodano lobbied hard enough to push the promotion through. The initial blockage, however, is attributed by the insider to one of the ‘factions’ in the Vatican, and it is likely this faction is Freemasonry. The battle between the Masons and Opus for influence in the Vatican is an interesting one, given their similarities. Both are obsessively secretive, both have a basically clueless rank and file - well intentioned foot soldiers who serve as window dressing - and both organizations are wealthy and ambitious.
Msgr. Vladimir Felzmann, an ex Opus Dei member, believed that ”Estermann would be of great interest to Opus Dei. Escriva’s view was that if you had the head of an organization, you had everything. With Estermann in its grip Opus Dei would be able to find out how the pope was, and who he saw from day to day. It would be privy to quite a few secrets about the cardinals, their health, that kind of thing. And among the cardinals is John Paul’s successor. Never forget that for Opus Dei knowledge is power. It would be able to get anyone into the Vatican; the guards wouldn’t breathe a word. You have access, you have freedom. (p. 107)”
Although Felzmann is fond of Jose Maria Escriva, the recently canonized founder of Opus Dei, he believes that Opus is “Orwellian, it rewrites history: pages are torn out of old internal pamphlets and new pages are stuck in to fit the current thinking…they believe that any means more or less justifies the end. And now it is one of the
strongest powers in the Vatican, thanks in no small degree to the pope himself. (p. 109)”
Asked if the pope is actively involved with Opus Dei, Felzmann replies:
“Of course he is. In all sorts of ways…We used to bank with Banco Ambrosiano; I used to deposit money in our account there. When the pope had to find two hundred million dollars that Calvi, ‘God’s Banker,’10 owed the Vatican in 1982, Opus Dei came up with it. And at that time Opus Dei was made personal prelature. When the pope wanted a new spokesman, Opus Dei gave him Navarro-Valls. And all the time there is Opus Dei’s hidden agenda, to grow and grow and grow. There are people in the Vatican who can’t stand it, but that hasn’t stopped Opus Dei from getting more and more powerful. Of course it would love an Opus Dei pope. (p. 110)”
Felzmann concludes: “Opus Dei is like a fire. If you get close you can get warm; if you get inside you can get burned. Tornay didn’t stand a chance…(p. 109)”
A Disputed Murder
Author Follain clearly views Opus Dei as beyond the pale, for the misguided reasons common to secular liberal journalists: Opus members are too conservative, too pious, too involved with physical mortification, and so on. In his conclusion about the murders he bypasses Opus Dei to place responsibility on Estermann for his tormenting of Tornay, and the Vatican for not stopping it.
Follain gives ample documentation of almost continual persecution of Tornay by Estermann, Tornay’s protests, and inaction by Estermann’s superiors.11 The final straw was when Estermann withheld Tornay’s medal in an especially sudden and cruel way: Tornay found out when he saw his name absent from the list of medal recipients. This happened shortly before the ceremony, after he had invited his mother and friend’s to the medal presentation. The unanimous sentiment of Guards and others whom Follain interviewed was that there was no justification for Estermann withholding Tornay’s medal.12
When Tornay saw his name was not on the list of medal recipients he returned to the barracks in tears. He tried to contact the Guard Chaplain, then a Vatican Cardinal. Chaplain Jehle allegedly refused to talk to Tornay (Jehle denies this), and the Cardinal was unavailable. Tornay then wrote a short letter to his mother, packed his gun, went to Estermann’s apartment and committed two murders and a suicide.
This is John Follain’s conclusion, anyway. Aside from replacing Tornay with Estermann as the villain of the piece, and adding details to the story, Follain’s conclusion is not far from the Vatican’s version: Tornay, in a fit of passion, took three lives.
Neither version fit for Muguette Baudat. She noticed numerous discrepancies in her son’s last letter to her (released by the Vatican) and concluded the letter was either doctored or a forgery. When Tornay’s body was flown to Switzerland for the final funeral, Baudat literally stole the body from a Swiss morgue to have a second autopsy done by Dr. Thomas Crompecher, professor of forensic medicine at the University of Lausanne. Based on his conclusions, Baudat retained Luc Brossolet and Jacques Verges, the two French lawyers who had defended Slobodan Milosevic before the World Court at the Hague. At a press conference her lawyers released a seventy-five page report that disputed the Vatican’s version of the murders and asked for a new investigation.
Brossolet and Verges claimed the second autopsy contradicted the Vatican’s conclusions on several points. First, Tornay’s service pistol used 9 millimeter bullets, but the exit wound in his skull measured 7 millimeters. Second, Tornay apparently suffered a fracture of a cranium bone, which was not on the bullet’s trajectory. His lungs contained a large amount of blood and saliva which could not have been caused by suicide, but could have been caused by internal bleeding due to blows on the head before he died. Third, the Vatican’s claim that Tornay had an egg-sized tumor in his head (which supported the “fit of madness” conclusion) was contradicted by the second autopsy, which found no tumor.
The report also noted that Tornay’s front teeth were broken off, as if a gun had been forced into his mouth.13 Finally, graphologists and psychologists who examined Tornay’s final letter to his mother have also concluded the letter is a forgery.
Despite these discrepancies, which may or may not be explainable within the Vatican’s or John Follain’s theories of how the murders were committed, the Vatican has thus far refused to reopen the investigation. Baudat’s lawyers are not accredited by the Vatican City State, so they have no standing to be heard. Brossolet and Verges tried to get accreditation, but were told by the president of the Vatican Appellate Court that “The case is closed.“14 Baudat and her lawyers appealed to the pope, but there is no indication they have received a reply.15
It seems the mystery will remain unsolved for the foreseeable future. Alois Estermann’s predecessor, former Guard Commander Roland Buchs, gave a speech at Tornay’s funeral in Switzerland that Cardinal Sodano refused to allow him to say at the Vatican funeral. After noting that Tornay was well regarded by his fellow guards, and that “his first step as a young adult was to put himself at the service of the Church,” Buchs strayed from the Vatican story line even further by saying:
”His act remains mysterious. Who can understand his last gesture? At this tragic time, may ’whys’ and ’wherefores’ remain in suspense…many questions remain unanswered. I think that God knows the real truth, and the precise reasons behind this tragedy.16
The last words will be given to Cedric Tornay’s mother. After attending her son’s funeral in Rome she remarked, “It struck me that the Vatican smelled of death.”