Cardinal sins: Can Pope Francis clean up the Vatican’s act?

A trial before the Vatican’s criminal tribunal begins this month, those charged include four former Vatican officials and Cardinal Angelo Becciu

The Vatican contends that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu gave €600,000 to a charity run by his brother in Sardinia. File photograph: Getty

The Vatican contends that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu gave €600,000 to a charity run by his brother in Sardinia. File photograph: Getty

 

Oh dear. It was Jesus himself who advised: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Despite which, and repeatedly, some dealing with Vatican finances appear to have fallen for the undoubted charms of mammon.

The latest episode remains to be proven. Previous ones show up Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code for its lack of imagination as well as the sad limitations of fiction.

Last Saturday the Vatican announced that 10 people, including a cardinal, were to face charges which include fraud, embezzlement, abuse of office, appropriation of funds, money laundering, self-laundering, corruption, extortion, publication of documents under the cover of secrecy, false documentation, falsified internal agreements. It followed an internal inquiry that has been continuing since 2019.

The trial before the Vatican’s criminal tribunal begins on July 27th. Most of the monies involve the Vatican’s Secretariat of State which has responsibility for managing a huge array of assets, funded in the main by Peter’s Pence collections from Catholics worldwide.

Those charged include four former Vatican officials and Cardinal Angelo Becciu, chief of staff at the Secretariat of State from 2011 to 2018, where he dealt with

He has been charged with embezzlement, abuse of office in complicity with others, and subordination

Vatican investments. Two other officials from the Secretariat also face charges, as well as Italian businessmen. At the centre of this scandal is a €350 million investment by the Vatican in 2013 involving a property at 60 Sloane Avenue in London’s Chelsea.

The building extends to more than 170,000 sq ft (15,794 sq m) of offices and retail space with a neo-classical terracotta façade and permission to be converted into 49 luxury apartments. Last April it emerged that the Vatican was interested in selling the property, privately, then valued at £200 million (€234 million).

Cardinal Becciu was also head of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which oversees who is to be canonised and who is not, until September last when he was removed from the post by Pope Francis and stripped of all rights and privileges as a cardinal, while retaining the title.

He has been charged with embezzlement, abuse of office in complicity with others, and subordination. These he vehemently denies, claiming last weekend to be the “victim of an organized plot hatched” against him.

The Vatican also contends that Cardinal Becciu gave €600,000 to a charity run by his brother in Sardinia, money which came from funds belonging to the Italian Bishops’ Conference and a further €225,000 that came from funds belonging to the Vatican Secretariat of State.

These donations, according to the Vatican inquiry, were allegedly “used for purposes other than the charitable purposes for which they were intended”. It found that a substantial portion of funds in the current account of his brother’s charity were “diverted and used for non-charitable purposes”, among which was a loan to the cardinal’s niece to acquire property in Rome. Cardinal Becciu has admitted giving the money but insisted it was for the charity, not his brother.

In March of last year Pope Francis promulgated a new law regulating the judicial system of the Vatican City State as part of his reforms where its economic/financial affairs and criminal law were concerned. It was also a response to the Vatican’s recent accession to various international conventions.

His remark was interpreted as an indirect reference to his firing of Cardinal Becciu shortly beforehand

Last Saturday’s announcement is seen as an indication of the Pope’s seriousness of intent when it comes to such reform. When he was elected in March 2013 it was with a clear mandate to clean up the Vatican’s frequently troubling handling of its financial affairs, among other matters.

In October of last year he assured the Council of Europe’s Moneyval (Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism) that the Vatican was cleaning up its act. He told them, quoting Jesus, “you cannot serve both God and money”. At the time his remark was interpreted as an indirect reference to his firing of Cardinal Becciu shortly beforehand.

Now aged 84 Pope Francis is expected to make a full recovery from successful surgery last Sunday to address a narrowing of his large intestine. His health, generally, is good despite his losing part of a lung in his youth due to infection. He suffers from sciatica which occasionally causes him to walk with a limp. But, prior to going to hospital for scheduled surgery last Sunday, he announced plans to visit Hungary and Slovakia in September.

His attempts at reforming Vatican finances this past eight years has not been without turmoil. In 2014 he appointed Australian Cardinal George Pell as first head, or prefect, of the new Secretariat for the Economy which has authority over all the Vatican’s economic activities.

Soon afterwards Cardinal Pell found “hundreds of millions of euros tucked away in particular sectional accounts [that] did not appear on the balance sheet” of the Vatican, as he put it. He suspected nepotism and ordered an external audit of all Vatican departments.

Cardinal Becciu – still at the Secretariat of State – blocked it.

Then, in 2017, Cardinal Pell was charged with sex abuse against minors in Australia decades previously. He was tried in Australia and found guilty, becoming the highest-ranking Catholic Church official to be found guilty of child sex abuse. He served a year in prison before Australia’s High Court overturned his conviction in April of last year.

Allegations then began to appear in the Italian media that Cardinal Becciu had sent money to Australian bank accounts as payment for testimony against Cardinal Pell. Cardinal Becciu vehemently denied this. The Australian man who accused Cardinal Pell of sexually abusing him also denied allegations he may have been bribed.

However, on his release from jail, Cardinal Pell was asked by media whether he thought the allegations against him were linked to his fight against corruption at the Vatican. “I don’t have any evidence of that,” he said. But he added that “most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they are”. Asked what motivated his accuser, Cardinal Pell replied, “I wonder whether he was used?”

Should sentences be meted out to the 10 accused in last Saturday’s Vatican statement they will be imprisoned in Italy with costs covered by the Vatican, which has no prison system. However, an exception took place in 2012 when Pope Benedict XVI’s butler Paolo Gabriele was found guilty of theft and of leaking confidential letters and documents addressed to the pope, to the media. Some of these documents contained allegations of corruption, abuse of power and a lack of financial transparency at the Vatican.

Two months later, in December 2012, he was pardoned by Pope Benedict

In October 2012 Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, but to be served at the Vatican itself due to fears that he might leak further secrets. He did so in a detention room at the headquarters of the pope’s private police force, the Vatican Gendarmerie. Two months later, in December 2012, he was pardoned by Pope Benedict. Last November he died, aged 54, following a long illness.

This latest Vatican financial scandal pales somewhat when compared to some others in the recent past. These have centred mainly on goings on at the Vatican Bank, or the Institute for the Works of Religion, to give it its proper name. Probably the most infamous of these concerned the Banco Ambrosiano, in which the Vatican Bank was main shareholder.

It collapsed in 1982, four years into the papacy of Pope John Paul II. Shortly beforehand its chairman Roberto Calvi was found hanging at Blackfriars Bridge in London. Known as “God’s Banker” because of his links with the Vatican, his body was found suspended from the bridge scaffolding with his pockets stuffed with bricks and more than €12,000 cash in three different currencies.

Investigations later concluded he had been murdered. The day before Calvi was found dead his secretary Teresa Corrocher took her own life in Milan by jumping from the fourth floor of the Banco Ambrosiano headquarters there.

It emerged later that Calvi was a member of the illegal masonic lodge Propaganda Due (P2). Members referred to themselves as frati neri or “black friars”. This led to suggestions that Calvi was murdered at Blackfriars Bridge as a warning to others.

Calvi was close to American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, then Vatican Bank president, which he remained until 1989. Another associate of the archbishop was believed to be Michele Sindona, a Sicilian financier who had advised the Vatican on moving investments out of Italy. Later he was convicted as a fraudster who had links to the Mafia and was jailed in 1984 for ordering the murder of a lawyer. In 1986 he died in an Italian prison after drinking coffee laced with cyanide.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Archbishop Marcinkus spent most of his clerical career at the Vatican, initially as English translator for Pope St John XXIII and Pope St Paul VI. Tall at 6ft 4in, and with a muscular build, Marcinkus also acted as a bodyguard for Pope St Paul VI. Known as “The Gorilla” in 1970 he saved Pope Paul VI in an assassination attempt at Manila airport in the Philippines by throwing himself at a Bolivian artist who tried to stab the pope.

Famously, Marcinkus accompanied Pope John Paul to Ireland in September 1979 when, seeing a scatter of nuns under the papal altar at the Phoenix Park, he reputedly ordered “get these broads outta here!”

In 1982 he also saved Pope John Paul’s life at Fatima when he jumped on a disturbed Spanish priest who tried to kill the pope with a bayonet and drew blood. The assassination attempt was denied by the Vatican at the time but the priest was later sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, following which he was expelled from Portugal.

He vehemently denied the charges and evaded arrest by staying inside Vatican City

Following investigations after the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano in 1982, then accused of laundering money for the Mafia and the illegal P2 masonic lodge, an Italian court in 1987 issued a warrant against Marcinkus who they accused of being an accessory to fraudulent bankruptcy. He vehemently denied the charges and evaded arrest by staying inside Vatican City until the warrant was dismissed in 1991, whereupon he returned to the US.

In America he served as an assistant parish priest in Arizona’s Sun City until his death at the age of 84 in 2006. The 1990 Francis Ford Coppola film, The Godfather Part III, features Irish actor Donal Donnelly portraying an Archbishop Gilday, a character based on Marcinkus.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.