Government buildings in Rome
A huge child pornography ring has been smashed, the police are jubilant and the guilty snared. Or so it seems, and in Italy nothing is ever as it seems.

Breezing through chat shows, offices and homes is the suspicion of a cover-up. Almost 1,500 people have been charged but not those in high places who are believed to form a "paedophile lobby".

My neigbours, echoing last night's chat shows, are certain a conspiracy is afoot. Whispers and denunciations will continue awhile but probably come to nothing. Italy will have another mystery.

The facts are these. Two years ago police, prodded by a campaigning Sicilian priest, set up a fake website to trap sellers and buyers of child porn.

Self-styled "child-lovers" downloaded Russian-made films of seduction, rape and torture. Last week police charged 831 Italians and issued arrest warrants for 660 people in Europe, Asia and the United States.

A victory for law-enforcement, trumpeted the government. Quite the contrary, said the magistrate leading the investigation, Alfredo Ormanni. Speaking into a forest of microphones, he claimed a network of politicians and institutional figures had obstructed the investigation and tried to protect the guilty.

"There is a paedophile lobby that acts in broad daylight and probably with the support, which I could consider unwitting, of certain political parties," said Mr Ormanni.

Father Fortunato Di Noto, the priest who tipped off police, claimed ministers were refusing to act on evidence. He would explain himself only to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi because he could not trust the government.

The effect was electric. Paedophiles in power closing ranks to protect their own. Unbelievable. Except lots of people believe.

The government has hit back, demanding that Mr Ormanni name names or shut up. The climate of suspicion was unacceptable, said interior minister Enzo Bianco.

The story appears to have peaked and today is already melting into inside pages, for the thunderbolts are spent. Proof is unlikely to emerge, leaving a legacy of suspicion.

"There they go again, wriggling off the hook," said my grocer, Raffaele, echoing widespread fatalism, cynicism and belief in conspiracies.

Another fact: Italian magistrates are often politicians-in-waiting. To make the leap requires a dash of publicity. Is Mr Ormanni such a man? Very possibly, but that doesn't deter belief in his claims.

His listeners are suffused with memories of myriad, unexplained acts of violence which the state may have covered up or even committed. To name just two. In June 1980 a DC-9 plane crashed near the island of Ustica, killing 81 people. A bomb on board, a missile or an accident? No one knows. Documents disappeared, voice recordings were erased, officials lied.

Last September eight military men, including four former generals, went on trial on charges of giving false testimony. In December 1969 a bomb ripped through a bank in Milan's Piazza Fontana, killing 16 and injuring 84. Right-wing terrorists, almost certainly, but in cahoots with security services?

Possibly, since at that time a climate of fear was judged propitious to combat communism. But no one knows, despite seven trials. The eight started last March.

"It's an amazing story," said the writer Dario Fo. "The fascists, and even the state and branches of the secret police and paramilitary organisations and even the CIA were involved."

The prime minister himself, Giuliano Amato, publicly hinted that the state needed to come clean.

No area is above suspicion. This week eight professional footballers were found guilty of match-fixing. Doping claims swirl around Italy's Olympic medallists.

Little wonder that Pope John Paul I and Diana, Princess of Wales, are widely believed to have been murdered. When politicians, generals, cardinals and sportsmen cannot be trusted, accepting their word strikes many as just plain dumb.