The Vatican’s media chief has resigned amid a scandal over a digitally manipulated photograph that misrepresented a letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis accepted Monsignor Dario Vigano’s resignation over what’s been dubbed the “lettergate” scandal on Wednesday, The Associated Press reports. The pope nominated the Italian priest’s deputy, Monsignor Lucio Adrian Ruiz, to take over the Vatican communications department.
The resignation followed the Vatican’s admission last week that it digitally altered a photograph of a Feb. 7 letter written Benedict commenting on a new 11-volume book series about Pope Francis’ theology. Vigano had asked Benedict to write a review of the series. The photo was released by the Vatican communications department on March 12, one day before the five-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election.
Vigano reportedly read parts of the letter at a news conference about the book series, and used it to repudiate conservative critics of Pope Francis, who say the pope’s style is a stark departure from that of his predecessor, according to the AP.
Vigano cited a portion of the letter in which Benedict writes that the books show the “interior continuity between the two pontificates, with all the differences in style and temperament.” But he failed to read the letter’s harsh criticism of one of the volume’s authors for “anti-papist” views about Benedict and his predecessor, St. John Paul II.
Benedict’s letter also admits he didn’t have time to read the entire book series, and can’t offer a sound theological review of the project.
The Vatican photograph of the letter, however, blurs the portion where the retired pope begins to explain this.
Most major news media have strict policies that prohibit editors from digitally adding or subtracting from photographs, especially when it alters the meaning of the image.
“Benedict’s full caveat about his refusal to comment on the volume was never made public in Vigano’s presentation, press release or accompanying photo,” the AP writes. “That omission left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the volume and fully endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.”
On Saturday, the Vatican bowed to pressure from the media and from Catholic conservatives to release Benedict’s complete letter. The Secretariat for Communications said it initially withheld part of the letter because of a desire for reserve ― “not because of any desire to censor.”
Vigano referred to the controversy in his resignation letter dated March 19, according to the Vatican News. He said he was stepping aside out of respect for co-workers, and didn’t want to “delay, damage or block” Francis’ reform of Vatican communications operations.
The scandal comes just weeks after Francis condemned the spread of fake news. Francis released a message in January that compared fake news with the “evil” that destroyed the Biblical figures Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He identified fake news as “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”
The pope wrote that “spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.” He added that it was the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.
“Ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace,” Francis wrote.