VATICAN CITY—In response to a rash of illegal activities in the most impoverished and violent neighborhood of the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI vowed Monday to eradicate crime in the Vatican City’s slum.
The slum, dubbed the "Heretic District" by Vatican City residents, has long been infamous for its neglected chapels, dilapidated seminaries, and ramshackle rectory inhabited by hundreds of poor priests dressed in old, tattered vestments.
Papal sources confirmed they could no longer turn a blind eye to the growing lawlessness within the Vatican's inner city.
"We will be vigilant and swiftly implement new measures to combat crime in this blighted area by enforcing divine law as well as ecclesiastical discipline," Benedict said. "The number of criminal offenses in this destitute stretch of our city has tripled in the past six years, and it is crucial to send a message to the miscreant faithful who have strayed too far."
Addressing hundreds gathered for mass at St. Peter's Basilica, the pope condemned the disturbing crime trend in the notoriously run-down section of Vatican City and unveiled a $235 million initiative that would provide the resources necessary to crack down on violators found counterfeiting relics, burglarizing tabernacles, performing back-alley confirmations, or assaulting rival clergy.
According to the Holy Father, the new anti-crime program would focus on apprehending, prosecuting, and convicting unlicensed street bishops, racketeering priests, and deacon thugs involved in illicit Church activities. In addition, the proposal would increase the number of Swiss Guards patrolling the streets of the slum and create a program to dissuade youths living in the neighborhood from ganging up to form their own rogue religious orders.
Benedict also told reporters the Catholic Church would allocate funds and oversee construction of the Vatican City's first maximum-security prison.
"Too often we have chosen to ignore the grim realities that exist in the forgotten corners of our city," the pope said. "Instead of taking action, the Catholic Church has simply mollycoddled the hoodlums who wantonly transubstantiate on the corner, in plain sight, and turned a blind eye on defrocked priests who steal consecrated bread to administer the Holy Eucharist."
"Repeat offenders must receive stiff punishments," the Supreme Pontiff added. "And on our end we must also pray harder to ensure these wicked servants of the Lord find the path to righteousness."
Bishop Luigi Bettazzi, who was born and raised in the slum and is still fluent in the low Latin spoken by a majority of the area's residents, acknowledged that he had a difficult childhood growing up on the "wrong side" of Vatican City.
"It's a rough part of town, there's no doubt about that," said Bettazzi, who still volunteers in the slum several times a week to help remove the "IHS" and "INRI" graffiti spray-painted on the exteriors of abandoned confessionals. "Back in the '60s, the Swiss Guard never even went down there. It was just you, your miter, and your wits."
Father Clark Johnson, an imposing local priest with two tiny crucifixes tattooed under his right eye to symbolize the number of times he has anointed the sick, said that many of the clergy living in the slum are convinced the Vatican is biased against them and would never allow them to rise above the level of monsignor.
"We all know the pope is from Vatican Heights," Johnson said. "You think His Holiness cares one whit about the clergy from here? Not a chance. I'll be stuck slinging communion for the rest of my life, and that's just the truth."
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said the majority of Vatican City locals are desperately afraid of the poverty-stricken neighborhood, where nuns loiter outside convents and deacons stumble around with the Blood of Christ in a paper bag. He believes people are so disturbed by the slum's reputation that they fail to appreciate its vibrant citizenry and local history.
"As bad as it is there in terms of crime and financial hardship, the place really is just teeming with culture," Bertone said. "The music is fantastic. Some of the best pipe-organ players come out of there. And if you want to taste the best daily bread you've ever had in your life, look no further."
"Plus, once you get to know the people and see past their tough exterior, they're really quite wonderful," Bertone added. "And they're deeply religious."