Comment Opinion & Features

Vatican financial reform is in tatters

Headquarters of the Vatican bank (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Frustration has been widely expressed at the lack of progress on sexual abuse reform. But on finances, things are getting worse

There is a classic episode of Yes Minister in which Jim Hacker is exasperated that a newly built hospital is fully staffed with some 500 administrators and ancillary staff, but the bureaucracy has decided to save money by not hiring any doctors or nurses nor treating any patients. In response, departmental officials assure the minister that, aside from the total lack of patients, everything else at the new hospital is in excellent working order.

There is something of that in Rome at the moment. On February 9, Pope Francis signed a new motu proprio that established new norms for the Office of Auditor General. Which is passing strange, because while, on the books, the statutes for oversight and auditing are being strengthened, in practice there are no doctors or nurses in hospital – no prefect, no secretary, no auditor general, and no urgency to replace them.

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne on completely impossible sexual abuse charges means that there will be many challenges in Rome on handling the case justly. But alongside that, Pell’s dossier in Rome, that of financial reform, is in need of urgent attention.

Cardinal Pell was appointed prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy (SPE in the Italian acronym) on February 24, 2014, for the standard five-year term given to Vatican prefects. In July 2017, he was granted leave to return to Australia to fight the charges against him. No interim head was appointed.

Pell’s term lapsed on February 24, 2019, and he was not renewed. That was not a surprise, given his age – 78 this year – and that his immediate prospects for return to Rome are uncertain. Even if Pell wins his appeal, it is possible that prosecutors in Melbourne may attempt to try him a third time.

Pell’s deputy at the SPE was Mgr Alfred Xuereb, who had served in Benedict XVI’s pontifical household. He was appointed secretary of the SPE by Pope Francis on March 3, 2014, just after Pell. Presumably, with Pell on leave, Xuereb would have taken over the operations of the SPE. But eight months later, he was appointed nuncio to Korea and not replaced at the SPE.

Even before Pell went on leave, the audits planned by the SPE were cancelled on the orders of the Secretariat of State, an authority that had been apparently transferred to the SPE. In due course, the SPE’s remit was rolled back significantly, removing from its authority the entirety of the Holy See’s real estate and investment holdings.

The same month Pell went on leave, the auditor general, Libero Milone, resigned. In effect, he was fired by the Secretariat of State. Milone had discovered that his office computers had been hacked and brought in experts to discover who was doing it.

The then Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the Sostituto, or chief deputy to the Secretary of State, told Reuters: “He went against all the rules and was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me.”

Milone was then dismissed for unlawful surveillance of his superiors, which he had done in an attempt to figure out who was surreptitiously monitoring him. It sounds like a Whitehall farce. But no one was laughing in Rome, and loud warnings were given that Milone could expect criminal charges.

Whatever investigation followed was done in secret. Then, after a year of silence, having loudly defamed him earlier, the Vatican simply announced that Milone would not be charged with any crimes.

Despite the professed urgency to fill Milone’s position after his dismissal, the post still remains vacant some 20 months later. As does the leadership of the SPE.

Meanwhile, despite the financial reform lying in tatters and the Holy Father having apparently lost all interest in it, the bureaucratic inertia chugs along, as if nothing has changed. So new statutes are refined and published for audits, even though the entire apparatus meant to execute those audits has withered on the vine.

Financial reform has understandably taken a back seat to sexual abuse reform over the past two years, but the story is familiar there too. The establishment of a special tribunal at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge the cases of bishops was announced in 2015, never to be implemented and abandoned without comment in 2016. It was replaced, so to speak, with new legislation – the motu prorio Come una madre amorevole – in 2016 that provided for special tribunals to be set up for bishops in various relevant dicasteries. No one heard of any such case actually proceeding and last year, on his return flight from Dublin, Pope Francis said that he had more or less abandoned the idea and would handle such cases himself, with whatever assistance he thought he might need.

Frustration has been widely expressed at the lack of progress on sexual abuse reform. But on finances, things are getting worse.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca