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It has been illegal since 1947 for citizens to be members of any secret organization. What makes the P2 affair especially explosive, however, is the specter of the vast conspiracy raised in an investigating magistrates' report that also was divulged by Forlani. The scandal originally came to light during an investigation by Milan judicial officials into the affairs of Sicilian Financier Michele Sindona, an accused P2 member currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for fraud in connection with the 1974 collapse of the Franklin National Bank. Investigating magistrates claimed to have found evidence that lodge members had helped Sindona skip bail in New York in 1979 by faking his kidnaping and hiding him near Palermo. Another alleged lodge brother was the former commander of Italy's Finance Police, General Rafaele Giudice, who has been implicated in an oil-import scandal involving as much as $2.2 billion in tax frauds.
Atop the organization, according to the investigators, was Venerable Grand Master Gelli, who is believed to have fled the country. A onetime mattress manufacturer, Gelli had been a diehard fascist during World War II. He lived for years in South America and used to boast about his connections with the late Argentine Dictator Juan Domingo Peron. Gelli apparently took over an ordinary Masonic lodge and then recruited members primarily on the basis of wealth and station.
The initiates were sworn to secrecy and, according to the oath, "to aid, comfort and defend my brothers in the order, even at the risk of my life." Former lodge members have said that while some may have joined the group for reasons of self-aggrandizement, others may have hoped to form an alternate power structure capable of deterring any future Communist participation in Italy's government.
Gelli made no bones about his right-wing beliefs. Says one Italian journalist:
"In Arezzo he was king and Pope. Many hated him for his bad character and fascist past, but no one dared cross him." Ermenegildo Benedetti, a onetime P2 member, recalls that in 1972 "Gelli lamented the fact that Italy did not have a dictatorship analogous to that of Greece at the time." Concluded the investigators' report: "Lodge P2 is a secret sect that has combined business and politics with the intention of destroying the constitutional order of the country." Gelli testified in a Bologna court in 1976 that "I am convinced of the need for a constitutional restructuring that would change Italy from a parliamentary republic to a presidential republic."
Ironically, the chief beneficiary of the whole Masonic affair may be the Communist Party. It was the only major political party untainted by alleged P2 memberships. No sooner had the Forlani government collapsed than Communist Party Leader Enrico Berlinguer was once more demanding a direct share in any new government.