Opinion & Features

On money and other matters, it’s been a rough few weeks in Rome

Bishop Zanchetta (Getty)

The past few weeks have been awfully rough for Pope Francis, the Roman Curia, and for Church leadership generally, especially on three fronts: money, clerical abuse and leadership culture. On each, deep rot has been further exposed, coupled with a colossal messaging failure that ultimately owes itself to the apparent inability to distinguish crisis from scandal.  

Money: the Holy See is bad at managing it. We knew that already, but it is a major story this time because the funds raised for the Pope’s global flagship collection – billed as a support for his charitable and missionary outreach efforts around the world – are reportedly treated as a slush fund for high-ranking Vatican types, who use it as a matter of course to make investments of questionable prudence. 

The slug line from the Peter’s Pence page on the Vatican website says: “Peter’s Pence is the name given to the financial support offered by the faithful to the Holy Father as a sign of their sharing in the concern of the Successor of Peter for the many different needs of the Universal Church and for the relief of those most in need.” 

Nearly 80 per cent of Peter’s Pence money is reportedly tied up in various investment funds. A senior curial official, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, is at the centre of one particular scandal involving an allegedly mismanaged investment scheme to the tune of €200 million.  

To hear Cardinal Becciu tell it, everything is business as usual. “If, by ‘money for the poor’, one means to refer to Peter’s Pence,” he told Italy’s ANSA news agency, “we must get things clear: Peter’s Pence is not only for the Pope’s charity, but also for the support of his pastoral ministry.” 

It’s one thing to solicit money for the Pope’s use in helping poor people and supporting needy churches and missions around the world. It is quite another to solicit money for an investment fund, some of which will go directly to help the poor and needy around the world, but much of which will first go into deals – of varying quality, as we have recently seen – that barely prop up a central bureaucracy. 

Citing unnamed sources in the Vatican’s Prefecture for the Economy and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See – APSA, an outfit often described as the Vatican’s central bank, and no stranger to scandal – the Catholic News Agency reported on November 4 that the money Becciu used to finance the allegedly mismanaged investment may have been borrowed, rather than taken from the Peter’s Pence pot. Whatever the story is, where Peter’s Pence is and what the Vatican does with it remains unclear. That is a problem. 

And it’s a problem for Pope Francis, who has talked a good game about money and made some paper reforms to Vatican finances, but has made some inexplicable decisions. The reason the Pope gave for creating a job in the APSA at the end of 2017, for his troubled Argentinian friend, Gustavo Zanchetta – Francis made him a bishop and gave him a see in 2013 – was that Zanchetta had too good a head for finance to let him go unused, even though Zanchetta had already been accused of serious moral failure and grave wrongdoing. Zanchetta is now facing trial in Argentina on charges he criminally misbehaved with seminarians, which he denies. “Economically he was messy, but he did not manage poorly the things he did manage. He was disorderly, but the vision [was] good,” Francis told Mexico’s Televisa earlier this year. 

When it comes to transparency, the apostolic visitation Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn conducted in the Diocese of Buffalo concluded last week. Both the Buffalo diocese and its current bishop, Richard Malone, have been under the microscope for some time. Allegations of serious governance failures and scandals in the chancery and presbyterate began to emerge in 2018. (Bishop Malone denies the claims.) Documentary evidence, eyewitness reports and victims’ testimony have all been before the public, some of it for more than a year. The situation has garnered the attention of state and federal criminal prosecutors. 

The apostolic visitation occupied seven working days in total, according to a statement from Bishop DiMarzio’s office, and involved interviews with some 80 people. That’s more than 11 people per day. There’s no word on precisely which diocesan files DiMarzio pulled. His report will be confidential unless and until someone higher in the pecking order than DiMarzio decides to make it public. 

In Buffalo, too, there was another option: a criminal investigation under the law Pope Francis enacted on June 1, Vos estis lux mundi, though it would have been more difficult to keep whatever came of a Vos estis investigation under wraps. For whatever reason, the Vatican appears for now at least to have taken the other, more opaque route.  

Things look murky elsewhere, too. Brian Altman QC, the lead counsel for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that has been looking at the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, strongly criticised the Vatican for what he described as a “very disappointing” lack of cooperation.