News Analysis

Could financial scandal isolate the Holy See?

Heavy weather: the Vatican may struggle to pass an imminent Moneyval review (Getty)

The Holy See is caught in a financial scandal that has seen it suspended from the information-sharing network of the world’s premier financial intelligence club. Some of the players in that scandal are tied to other murky financial doings. If the Holy See doesn’t get a handle on the business – and soon – the resulting fallout could lead to the Holy See’s being increasingly isolated from the international community.

The story behind the story of financial incompetence, mismanagement, and misdeeds, is one of powerful men who seem either to care nothing for the institution they serve, the true good of which is found in the good of the persons, whose souls the institution exists to save; or – what is worse – they have come to identify their own personal and worldly satisfaction with that of the institution from which they have power and station.

An Argentine prosecutor gave the Holy See a black eye last week as well, when she asked for international cooperation in securing the presence of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. He is an old acquaintance of Pope Francis, who made Zanchetta a bishop and then created a post for him in the powerful and troubled APSA (the Vatican’s “central bank”) after complaints reached him of Zanchetta’s alleged moral turpitude and tyrannical governance.

That was arguably not the worst news for the Holy See last week, which also saw a major CNN investigative report reveal that the 50-year-old Salesian missionary priest Fr Luk Delft, who was appointed national director of Caritas in the Central African Republic, is a serial abuser of children, against whom fresh abuse allegations (reportedly by occupants of a camp for internally displaced persons) have been lodged since he took over the top job.

CNN reported that the Salesians knew about Fr Delft’s record of abuse in the early 2000s. AP then reported that the Vatican knew about Fr Delft as early as 2017. Caritas had Delft on its radar for some time before he was removed. Caritas, however, is a cumbersome global network – a federation of national outfits – the wheels of which turn slowly.

As horrifying as it might be to think that protocols were not followed, it is more difficult still to countenance the possibility that this happened because they were followed. Caritas has since adopted a new policy, but one may have to consider whether ecclesiastical systems ostensibly designed to ensure responsibility, accountability and transparency are not really purposed as such.

Perplexity over the Holy See’s apparent unwillingness to use its new reform law, Vos estis lux mundi, to discover, remove, and punish corrupt and negligent bishops and their entrenched cohorts in chanceries (for which the law seems tailor-made), likewise raises questions regarding the commitment of Church leadership to resolve the crisis.

The Vatican Financial Information Authority suffered a serious setback when it was suspended from the main operational portion of the Egmont Group. This is the 164-nation group of financial intelligence units, which the Council of Europe’s financial monitor, Moneyval, encouraged the Holy See to join as part of making the it fit for Moneyval membership. The suspension may prove to be only the beginning of the fallout from an ill-conceived $200 million London property deal involving the Holy See.

Scheduled for 2020, the imminent Moneyval review will not be easy going for the Holy See, but it will not need to go half so badly as it might in order to lead to action analogous to that taken by the Egmont group. That could lead also to strained bilateral relations with member states.

Internationally, the Holy See has long been a proponent of mediating organisations like the United Nations, as well as of supranational political and administrative organs like the European Union, to which member states must cede at least a portion of their sovereignty as a condition of those organs’ meaningful functioning.

The Holy See has also encouraged bilateral cooperation and burden-sharing as practical necessities of life in a real community of nations.

When it comes to its own sovereignty, however, the Holy See often behaves precisely as a kind of atomic unit, an island unto itself. This has been especially true when it comes to inquiries and investigations into clerical abuse and episcopal cover-ups, but not only there.

With investigators in several civil sphere jurisdictions increasingly focused not only on the Church, but also on the Holy See’s knowledge of local Church organisations and behaviour, invoking sovereign immunity will only become more costly, at least for the Holy See’s moral standing.

The Argentine prosecutor who last week requested international cooperation in apprehending Bishop Zanchetta – ­who is facing charges of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” against multiple adult victims, and whose last known address was Vatican City ­– was probably engaging in a bit of grandstanding. But it was also a shot across the Holy See’s bow.