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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER Jan-14-2005 (830 words) With photo. xxxi

Police predicament: Teens, not terrorists, are biggest threat to pope

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For the Italian police who help ensure the security of Pope John Paul II, terrorism is the biggest theoretical threat to the pope.

However, in the pope's day-to-day life, teenage and young adult faithful are the biggest real threat, they said.

The young people's devotion to the pope and their enthusiasm mean the police agents wage a constant battle against brave young souls willing to jump security barricades to touch the pope.

Whether planning for hypothetical terrorists or hyperactive teenagers, police officials said, guaranteeing Pope John Paul's safety is an impossible mission.

"Safeguarding the life of the pope is impossible, because it is impossible to surround him with the men and equipment that would guarantee his safety," said Enrico Marinelli, former director of the Italian police Inspectorate for Public Security at the Vatican.

"Any security measures that prevented him from reaching the people -- especially the poor, the sick and children -- caused his displeasure," said Marinelli, who led the Italian Vatican squad for 14 years.

Marinelli spoke Jan. 12 during a conference launching a book about the Italian security agents, "The Pope's Guardian Angels," by Glauco Benigni.

Gerardo Centanni, the officer in charge of escorting the pope whenever he leaves the Vatican, told the conference, "Our work is unique because the subject is unique."

The security measures that professional training and common sense would dictate, he said, often are not acceptable to the Vatican "because you absolutely cannot limit the activity of the Holy Father."

The Swiss Guards and members of the Vatican police force -- the pope's usual bodyguards -- did not cooperate in writing the book, which is available only in Italian.

One journalist summarized the situation by explaining the book looked at the "guardian angels" while the "archangels" kept quiet.

The Swiss Guards and the Vatican police have exclusive responsibility for public order and papal safety on Vatican territory, but Italy and the Vatican have an agreement to work together in St. Peter's Square.

Benigni said that with the "taboos about discussing the security of the pope," the initial stages of his research were confined to dusty history books.

He was able to get current information only after the widely publicized alarms about a possible terrorist attack at the Vatican during Holy Week and Easter 2004.

Flavio Tuzi, president of the labor union that represents most of the Italian police assigned to the Vatican's perimeter, said he went public because the 2004 alerts meant "the situation was dangerous for the crowd, but also for the officers."

The union mobilized "to push for more personnel, better training and better equipment," Tuzi said.

The police officers identified several ongoing security concerns: the pope's insistence on being in the crowd and touching the faithful; the lack of identification checks when distributing and collecting the free tickets to papal events; the ease with which the tickets could be copied; the lack of rigorous searches of people going into St. Peter's Square; and the small number of police assigned to the square.

Tuzi said, however, that Italy does have "invisible" security measures in place, including around and over St. Peter's Square.

While he said he could not provide details, he said members of the Italian police anti-terrorism unit are always nearby when the pope is in public.

Tuzi said there "could be" sharpshooters on buildings as well as undercover agents with cameras scattered among the crowds.

But even as the worst-case scenarios are studied in planning meetings, Centanni said most of the police interventions involve the adoring faithful.

The pope, he said, "is an icon of peace who provokes happiness, emotional tears and behavior sometimes approaching collective hysteria."

Especially at youth gatherings, he said, "as the crowds' enthusiasm grows, my concern rises."

Packed up against security barriers as the pope rides by in the popemobile, young people have been known to "launch themselves in flight in an attempt to glide and perhaps end up stuck to the popemobile."

"The climate becomes surreal," he said, and the police have to divide up into teams of blockers, catchers and pitchers who "throw those kids back over the barricades."

At the 2000 celebration of World Youth Day in Rome, he said, "I think the pope enjoyed the sort of contest that developed between the security service and the young people; I'm not alone in thinking the attempts to reach him became a kind of game."

The police are not playing, though.

Centanni said that especially after the 2004 terrorist alarms, the police not only examine the crowds for people acting strangely, but they also move in around groups of young people getting overexcited as they wait for the pope.

Fortunately, he said, "an exchange of eloquent glances" is usually all it takes to make "the aspiring acrobats" change their minds about jumping the barricades.

The pope, Centanni said, "is exposed to threats from every type of fanaticism."

END


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