Fact Check: Pope NOT Arrested On 80-Count Indictment For Child Trafficking And Fraud During Supposed 'Vatican Blackout'

Fact Check

  • by: Maarten Schenk
Fact Check: Pope NOT Arrested On 80-Count Indictment For Child Trafficking And Fraud During Supposed 'Vatican Blackout' Another Hoax

Was Pope Francis arrested in Vatican City after a supposed blackout and was he indicted for child trafficking and fraud? No, that's not true: there is no evidence for any of this and the claim went viral through a website run by an anonymous person using a fake identity that has published several other arrest hoaxes in the past.

The claim appeared in an article published by Conservative Beaver on January 10, 2021 titled "VATICAN BLACKOUT: Pope arrested on 80 count indictment for Child Trafficking, Fraud - Conservative Beaver" (archived here) which opened:

VATICAN / ITALY - Pope Francis aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio was arrested Saturday in connection with an 80- count indictment of charges including possession of child pornography, human trafficking, incest, possession of drug paraphernalia and felony fraud.

The Italian National Prosecutor's Office confirmed it ordered the arrests, and filed the charges.

Military officers, Italian police, and their Sex Crimes Unit went to the pope's home in the Vatican, they arrested him and several other high ranking officials, and placed them all under arrest without incident. People near the scene have reported hearing gunshots, but the Police would not confirm if they were the ones firing the weapons.

Pope Francis is currently being held in an unknown prison, being interrogated by Federal Agents working for the state of Italy and Interpol. The FBI is reportedly making arrangements to fly in and interrogate him once Interpol is done with him.

Vatican City is an independent state with its own judicial system. The Italian National Prosecutor would not have the power to effect any arrests there, especially not of the Head of State. It is also unclear why the (presumably) American FBI would be involved and (if they were) why there would be no official announcement about it. Arresting the Head of State of an independent nation would be a major diplomatic incident that would send shockwaves through the international community, yet none of this appears to be happening.

Rumors of the arrest were fueled by online reports (archived here) of a "blackout" at the Vatican, based on screenshots of a live stream:

However, as The Catholic Traveler explains in a blog post (archived here), you can clearly see the lights are still on in the video:

As you can see, the camera exposure seems to be really low - something that happens to the live-feed often, by the way, when there is lightening and occasionally even during the rain. In any case, you can see the lights are very much on. You can see the dome, you can see the lights of the colonnade, you can see some office/apartment lights, you can see the nativity lights, you can see the Christmas tree star.


(Screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Rb7_WdNlZY, 'Lights' caption and arrows added by Lead Stories)

No credible news sources have confirmed the story and Pope Francis was active on Twitter during the time he was said to be in custody:

The Vatican has not issued any press releases about their Head of State being kidnapped by a foreign state either, which is something you'd expect a country to do if it actually happened.

The website that published the story (Conservative Beaver) has a history of spreading hoaxes about prominent people being arrested. For example, it falsely claimed former President Obama had been arrested for espionage, and that George Soros was arrested for election interference. It published a similar hoax about Hunter Biden being arrested only last month.

At the time Lead Stories Authenticity Analyst Sarah Thompson looked further into the site and came to following conclusions:

The website Conservative Beaver is less than two months old and was registered on September 19, 2020. The "About" section of the website says, "Owned and operated by Zayden Thornton, based out of Montreal, Canada." The Dibiz page link for Zayden Thornton of Conservative Beaver (archived here) shows a profile picture that appears to be a StyleGAN computer-generated face.


Screenshot of the StyleGAN profile picture of Zayden Thornton on Dibiz

The image file posted to Dibiz is 800x800 pixel square. The square format is one of the most telling signs of a StyleGAN image. For example, Thispersondoesnotexist.com creates 1024x1024 pixel images. A computer-generated blend of 5000 StyleGAN faces was posted to Twitter by @conspirator0 (shown below in the upper right corner) StyleGAN images anchor the eyes in the same position of the square. The lower blended image is Zayden's face layered as a transparency over the original composite. The image of Zayden lines up with the blended face example. Other small tells of the StyleGAN face are the asymmetrical size of the front teeth, the blobby anatomy of the right ear-lobe, the unnatural "stretch mark" patterning on the upper lip, and the "tree root" branching of the hair of the bangs. More recent StyleGAN images have improved natural outdoor backgrounds, but the flaws of the landscape are hidden by (faux) depth of field effects.


Further analysis of the Conservative Beaver website reveals that it has the same Google AdSense code as another website which quickly earned a reputation for fake news, TorontoToday.net.

Lead Stories debunked these TorontoToday.net stories late in the summer of 2020.

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Lead Stories took a look at StyleGAN images in this analysis article:

Fake Faces: People Who Do Not Exist Invade Facebook To Influence 2020 Elections (Part 1)

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  Maarten Schenk

Maarten Schenk is the co-founder and COO/CTO of Lead Stories and an expert on fake news and hoax websites. He likes to go beyond just debunking trending fake news stories and is endlessly fascinated by the dazzling variety of psychological and technical tricks used by the people and networks who intentionally spread made-up things on the internet.

Read more about or contact Maarten Schenk

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