News Focus

The cardinal with the Pope on his side

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga is one of the Pope’s closest advisers (CNS)

Pope Francis aside, there is no more prominent Latin American Catholic than Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga. The Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is president of the Church’s worldwide charity arm, Caritas. In the 1990s, he served as president of the Latin American bishops’ conference. Francis himself has given Cardinal Maradiaga yet another high position: he coordinates the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, the “C9”.

All of which makes the recent allegations of financial mismanagement against Cardinal Maradiaga a major story. The cardinal has denied the claims, saying that they are “calumnious”. He told the Honduran Church’s television channel that the Pope agreed with him. “I’m sorry for all the evil they have done against you,” Francis reportedly told the cardinal, “but don’t worry.”

The central accusations relate to how Cardinal Maradiaga received funds, and how he dispensed them. According to L’Espresso, the Italian magazine which levelled the claims just before Christmas, Cardinal Maradiaga was receiving about $40,000 (£30,000) a month from the Catholic University of Tegucigalpa – of which he is grand chancellor. (The cardinal said this money went to the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, not him personally, and was spent on good causes.)

The other big claim is that Cardinal Maradiaga deposited more than a million dollars in London bank accounts, from where it then disappeared. Cardinal Maradiaga has categorically denied all wrongdoing.

Nobody doubts that the journalist making the claims, Emiliano Fittipaldi, understands the Church’s internal affairs. His articles on the misuse of Church funds, and a widely covered book, Avarizia, have been greeted as serious exposés. In this case, he claims to have based the allegations on a report sent to Pope Francis by the papal nuncio to Honduras, Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa. However, Cardinal Maradiaga points out that Fittipaldi failed to ask him for comment before publishing the story.

Nevertheless, the situation is odd: as Phil Lawler put it at the Catholic Culture website, “How does a Catholic university, in an impoverished country, have $40,000 a month to spare?”

But despite the old saying, there can be smoke without fire. The cardinal himself suggests that lies are being spread out of resentment.

“A little more than one year ago,” he told the Catholic News Agency last month, “we had to fire a manager of the university because he was stealing … shortly after, an anonymous defamatory paper was spread, filled with a series of calumnies of the kind published this week.”

So the truth will take a while to emerge; and Fittipaldi has mentioned other financial mysteries in Tegucigalpa archdiocese, which he says the Honduran Court of Auditors is investigating.

The story is further complicated by the multiple allegations which relate to Tegucigalpa archdiocese in general rather than Cardinal Maradiaga in particular. The diocese’s use of funds has lacked transparency, Fittipaldi claims.

If Fittipaldi expands on his allegations, if Cardinal Maradiaga doubles down on his denials, and if the Honduran authorities continue their investigation, then we may be able to establish some clarity on the accusations. But Pope Francis has not hesitated to give Cardinal Maradiaga his backing. He has seen the full report, and will take the final decision.

Reuters reporter Philip Pullella once noted that Vatican workers say the Pope trusts “his immediate gut feelings about people”. And he clearly supports Cardinal Maradiaga – in spite of previous controversies.

The cardinal’s remarks about “Jewish” influence on the media in 2002 prompted accusations of anti-Semitism. During Benedict XVI’s pontificate the cardinal fought – and lost – a battle with Cardinal Robert Sarah, who wanted Caritas to stress its Catholic identity more explicitly.

Before the family synod, Cardinal Maradiaga rebuked Cardinal Gerhard Müller for his defence of traditional teaching on Communion. “He’s a German, it must be said,” Cardinal Maradiaga explained, “and above all he’s a German theology professor, so in his mentality there’s only truth and falsehood.”

Cardinal Maradiaga turned 75 last week, which means he must offer his resignation as Archbishop of Tegucigalpa. The Pope’s decision will tell us much about his willingness to give his associates the benefit of the doubt.