Pope Delivers Christmas Message Despite Fall

Susanna Maiolo knocked Pope Benedict to the ground in a serious security breach.

December 25, 2009, 6:53 AM

Dec. 25, 2009 — -- Not only did Christmas Eve mass begin two hours earlier than usual this year to give the 82-year-old Pontiff time to relax ahead of his Christmas day duties, but the evening was marked by a serious security breach.

As Pope Benedict XVI was making his way down the long aisle in St. Peter's Basilica, a woman leaped over the barrier to get closer to him. But in doing so she lunged at him and pulled him down to the marble floor.

The faithful gasped in shock. Mary Beth Burns, a tourist from Texas, described the incident saying, "All of a sudden this person sort of flew over the barricade and the holy father went down and all of a sudden all the security people were all on top of it, you know the whole pile there, getting her off and pulling him back up.''

The incident was over in a matter of seconds as Vatican guards rushed to his rescue and wrestled the woman to the ground before taking her away for questioning.

Unfazed and unhurt, Pope Benedict got up immediately and continued with the procession, blessing the faithful. He began with a wish for peace in Latin "Pax Vobis," but there was no mention of the tackle.

It may have been a lucky escape for the Pope but not for Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87. He was wheeled off to hospital with a broken hip after falling during the incident. He'll be operated on in the coming days.

A statement released by the Vatican identified the woman as Susanna Maiolo, a 25-year-old Italian Swiss national. The statement said she was not armed but shows signs of mental instability, and has since been admitted to a health facility for compulsory treatment.

The pope's schedule remains unchanged.

This incident comes just weeks after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was bludgeoned with a small statuette at a rally by a man who was described as deranged. The attacker too evaded security and had many questioning the lapse in Berlusconi's personal safety.

Pope Security Questioned

It's also not the first security scare for a pope.

At the end of last year's mass, Maiolo tried to get closer to Pope Benedict but she was quickly whisked away.

In 1981, the world watched in horror as Pope John Paul II was shot and almost killed in St Peter's square. A Turkish man, Mehmet Ali Agca, was arrested after that attack.

Although the Swiss Guard has been protecting popes for centuries, the fact that the same woman breached security for a second time and was able to get as close as she did is a reminder of just how vulnerable the pope is during public gatherings.

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