The Favorite to Become the Next Pope Might Have Mafia Ties

If the papal conclave were set up like college basketball's March Madness, Cardinal Angelo Scola would have been a No. 1 seed — until today's anti-mafia investigation caught up with him.

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If the papal conclave were set up like college basketball's March Madness, Cardinal Angelo Scola would have been the overall No. 1 seed — perhaps until today. He is the archbishop of Milan and has long been seen as a safe pick for the next pope, having won favor among American cardinals and a handful of influential European ones. So what stands in his way? Well, there's that pesky anti-mafia investigation he has to deal with. The Guardian's John Hooper and Lizzie Davies report today that anti-mafia detectives are investigating corruption in the health-care system of Lombardy, the Italian region of which Milan is the capital. And Scola is very much intertwined with the most powerful man behind it all:

Healthcare in Lombardy is the principal responsibility of the regional administration, which for the past 18 years has been run by Roberto Formigoni, a childhood friend of Scola and the leading political representative of the Communion and Liberation fellowship. Until recently, Scola was seen as the conservative group's most distinguished ecclesiastical spokesman.

So, that's the possibly corrupt health-care system, which anti-mafia detectives claim has been run by Scola's longtime pal, Formigoni (pictured at right), who just happens to be part of the same lay movement upon in which Sciola is now being tied up in. Whew. "The movement, abbreviated CL, encourages its members to spread the Gospel and traditional church teachings in areas where Europe's secular leaders often consider it unwelcome: the workplace and the halls of government and education," explained The Wall Street Journal's Stacy Meichtry and Alessandra Galloni. They add: "CL helped put Silvio Berlusconi on Italy's political map two decades ago by drawing a crucial swath of Catholic supporters to his side, particularly in wealthy northern regions such as Lombardy."

Berlusconi and a mafia investigation are no doubt terrible, polarizing optics, which you really don't want on your resumé given the complex and heavily guarded papal politics in the Vatican this week. But the Guardian report does say that Scola has been distancing himself from the CL group, partly because they tattled on Scola to his boss:

But he [Scola] has progressively loosened his ties to Communion and Liberation, and in early 2012 publicly rebuked the movement after its leader was found to have written to Pope Benedict, implicitly criticising the cardinal's liberal predecessors in the Milan archdiocese.

Not that a carefully timed distancing will necessarily save Scola in the minds of his detractors — or competitors for the Vatican's top job. Most of his critics already have a position on the CL, and as The Journal's team reported, at least one Cardinal plans to discuss CL and its corruption exhaustively throughout the conclave, which may not go beyond this week. Without a doubt, papal watchers say, this new anti-mafia swoop is going to slow if not stop Scola's quest for 77 votes (the magic two-thirds vote count). According to local sources, Scola has around 50 cardinals locked up in his corner, most of which come from American cardinals and European support.

But let's take a minute to look at Scola's upside! Crisis and scandal management have been requirements in the Church of late. This latest scandal is as good a practice run as any, right?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.