Hours before Pope John Paul II's funeral and burial in early April in the grottoes beneath St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City had already become a risk manager's version of Dante's Inferno.
Pilgrims poured into Vatican City, rapidly swelling it and surrounding Rome by millions. With four kings, five queens and at least 70 presidents and prime ministers paying their last respects, the concentration of political power that had descended onto Vatican City's 109 acres was unprecedented.
The U.S. delegation alone consisted of President George W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton.
Makeshift tents and medical-emergency units rose quickly throughout Rome. And hovering ominously over the proceedings was the dreaded threat of terrorist attacks. In response, anti-aircraft rocket launchers were in place throughout Rome, a navy warship armed with torpedoes patrolled the coastline near the capital and more than 6,000 extra police, including snipers, bomb-disposal experts and motorcycle escorts were deployed to protect the crowds and dignitaries.
Heightening fears of attack were credible reports that the brother of a gunman convicted of shooting and seriously wounding the pope in 1981 planned to journey from his native Turkey to be in Rome for the funeral ceremonies.
As the whole world watched with growing amazement and awe, what had begun as a solemn, manageable vigil in the Holy See during the pope's waning days blossomed into one of the largest and most mind-boggling events in the history of crowd control.
"This was an extremely unique situation because of the passion involved," says Chris Rogers, director of risk control, national entertainment practices group, Aon/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Services in Los Angeles. "This was a crowd unlike any other. There was a deep sense of loss. When the pope died, millions of his followers suddenly realized how greatly they had been affected by him, what a big role he had played in their lives, and they wanted to make the pilgrimage to Rome to participate in the tribute to him. This was not like a championship sporting event, where emotions are running
high in a boisterous way. The pope had been their spiritual leader for a long time (more than 27 years), and when he died, the sense of loss among Catholics around the world was huge."
As a result, the enormity of the crowd was simply not something that the Vatican could have anticipated, even as the early stages of the funeral events started to unfold in early April.
"It was a true groundswell," says Rogers, "and once it caught the media's attention, no one could predict the dimensions of the crowd that would converge on Vatican City."
CARDINALS MAKE THEIR MOVE
Rogers, like other insurance industry crowd-control experts, gave the Vatican high marks for reacting swiftly and effectively to the overflowing crowds.
Michael J. Wright, executive vice president of large venues at Willis, along with Rogers and others, commended the cardinals for ending the viewing procession of the pope's body in St. Peter's Basilica on a Wednesday evening, in advance of the pope's funeral on Friday, April 8.
At that point, facing a 24-hour wait to view the pope, a huge line wound its way down a wide boulevard, through ancient alleyways and onto a bridge.
"The Vatican no doubt mapped out the groundwork for everything associated with the papal event well before the pope's death, but clearly many of the cardinals' decisions were made on the spot, and they were good ones," says Wright, who handles large-venue events in Willis' sports and entertainment group.
With instant and heavy media coverage communicating this all-important crowd-control message, the cardinals' early and clear-cut decision to shut down the line changed the plans of thousands of pilgrims who had been prepared to wait for hours to view Pope John Paul II's body at St. Peter's Basilica.
Word of the cardinals' decision also sent forth the powerful crowd-control message that the opportunity to view the body of the pope, or even press into Vatican City, was gone, thus hopefully persuading people who were considering traveling to Rome to instead pay tribute to the pontiff in their own communities, says Rogers.
But then, in another abrupt and wise move, the ruling group of cardinals reopened the line to St. Peter's Basilica just a day before the funeral to give the faithful one last opportunity to pay their respects to the pontiff. Once the Basilica reopened, the line of mourners moved quickly, with the waiting time drastically reduced to just a few hours.
Beyond the clear-and-present third-party liability dangers--many of them potentially on a large scale--hung the almost unthinkably wide range of terrorist-attack scenarios.
Theoretically, if the Vatican did in fact place insurance coverage, it would have done so beginning at $100 million, according to insurance executives. The figure, depending on the situation, could have gone higher.
"Terrorism would be their single biggest concern, for both property and liability consequences," says Gene Williams, a vice president of Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., and the entertainment practice leader for Chubb worldwide. "Perhaps they might have chosen to buy increased liability limits for this event, over and above their normal liability limits. I doubt that a limit higher than $100 million would be placed."
If the Vatican had decided that its general liability coverage had limits that were too low for the scope of events surrounding the pope's funeral, they would have bought excess limits for any liability claims, not just terrorism, adds Williams. "They would have gone to either Italian insurers or the London market for excess limits," he says. "If between those two they couldn't piece together the full limit they had wanted, only then would I have expected them to look for it in the United States insurance market."
While agreeing with other insurance executives about the overriding insurance concern related to potential terrorist attacks, Maureen S. O'Brien, senior vice president at Frenkel & Co., drew attention to the multiple forms of property damage and loss that can occur at a landmark event or an historic occasion.
O'Brien, who was the broker for "The Gates" extravaganza in New York's Central Park earlier this year, spoke of potential concerns from what she has dubbed "The Berlin Wall Syndrome."
"As was the case when the Berlin Wall came down," she says, "people can be greatly tempted to take some physical object to prove that they were actually there on an historic occasion, even if they don't intentionally mean any harm."
For example, some people attending "The Gates" project, she says, literally ripped off pieces of the giant cloth flags that defined the event so they could have a memento of being there--or, heaven forbid, so they could sell them on eBay.
As to the likelihood for any significant number of third-party liability claims in the aftermath of the events related to the papal funeral, O'Brien says she doesn't see it happening. "You're dealing in Europe where people are not prone to sue in the way Americans are."
"With respect to general liability coverage for the event, underwriters would consider the likely number of claims that might be made against the Vatican by injured spectators--perhaps a lower risk by virtue of respect for the institution," says Williams. "There also may be local or national statutory restrictions against such claims."
PREPARED AGAINST THIEVES
Historically, according to insurance industry executives and others with knowledge of the papal authority's secretive and committee-governed business dealings, whatever insurance the Vatican has in place for itself is often self-insured in one form or another.
However, one insurance-sphere practice the Vatican does use is what Viscount Dupplin, head of Hiscox Plc's Art and Private Client Division in London, calls "buying in advice"--that is, hiring individuals or firms on an advisory basis to address a particular issue or concern.
"I think you'll find that the Vatican and similar institutions regularly look for external advice on a variety of specific matters separate from financial coverage," says Dupplin, whose insurance group has 10,000 major-collector clients around the world. "The arts risk-transfer community is a small one and skills are very specialized."
And, as one might expect, many of the objects in the Vatican's collections--oil paintings, ceramic tiles, jewelry, rare books and historical documents--are priceless.
During all the commotion and confusion of the funeral ceremonies in late March and early April, there was the germ of a script for "Oceans 13," which, if you're not up on your movies, would be the third in a series of great, brazen heists in the midst of a busy, hurly-burly public scene. In the case of the pope's funeral, would professional thieves tempted to steal treasures from the Vatican's art collection housed in locations throughout the city have succeeded?
Not likely, says Dupplin. "There were a helluva lot of off-duty policemen with respect to the funeral." And the Vatican itself, Dupplin adds, has been very conscious that its art and precious artifacts collection "has been a target for several hundred years, and they've been very on the ball about protecting it."
"The chances of art theft at the Vatican are much less than at similar institutions," says Dupplin. "Theft of art at the Vatican is greatly mitigated by the exceptionally well-catalogued nature of the collections." Not to mention the growing prominence and usage of an extensive and richly detailed Web site devoted to many parts of the papal art collection.
Given that context, Dupplin says, "If you're a thief, you have to ask yourself, 'Will I be able to sell it?' " Not likely.
In the larger scheme of things, although it's generally agreed whatever insurance the Vatican had in place for the pope's funeral was self-insured, nevertheless the insurance industry around the world was, in effect, still deeply involved in the final rites for Pope John Paul II.
"It's something we can all learn from," says Aon's Rogers. "The pope's funeral event was truly unprecedented in magnitude, but there were many specific aspects of it that will provide invaluable lessons for how to handle similar situations in the future."
STEVE YAHN, a former editor and publisher, contributes frequently to Risk & Insurance®.
May 1, 2005
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