Pope Francis speaks with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, during a visit to Lima’s cathedral on 21 January 2018.
(VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Charles Collins ofCrux says the Vatican’s management of the affair has something of the TV sitcom about it
The Vatican spun the recent announcement that they’d indicted 10 people – including Cardinal Angelo Becciu – as a new era of transparency, with the Holy See looking intent on cleaning up the mess of a €350 million investment in a luxury London real estate venture.
The news and the spin both raised more than a few eyebrows.
It is not known how much of the money the Vatican can hope to recoup from the fiasco, but the paperwork shows officials overpaid for the property, and squandered tens of million of euros in consultant fees and other dubious charges.
Anyone who has followed the case knows the Vatican got taken for suckers by Raffaele Mincione, but courts in both the UK and Italy have dismissed allegations of criminal activity.
Some of the Vatican charges are especially dubious, including the claim that Peter’s Pence was to be used exclusively for charitable purposes. Francis himself, during a 2019 inflight interview, noted that Peter’s Pence was used in investments.
“First of all, in good administration it is normal for a sum to come from the Peter’s Pence, and what do I do? Put in a drawer? No, this is bad administration,” Francis said on Nov 26. “I look to make an investment, and when there is the need, to give… when there is the necessity, in one year, you take it. Your capital you do not devalue, if it maintains or if it grows a little. This is good administration.”
The pontiff even explicitly said the money could be used in property investment, but noted that it is possible the London deal included things that “that do not seem clean.”
The London property — 60 Sloan Avenue in Chelsea – was tapped to be turned into luxury apartments, and the paperwork shows that it was reviewed from the highest places, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State.
The deal was organized on the Vatican’s side by Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who at the time was serving as the Substitute for General Affairs at the Secretariat, basically the chief of staff. He has been indicted, but Parolin and Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra – Becciu’s successor who dealt with the deal after Becciu was moved to the Congregation for Saints in 2018 – weren’t accused of any wrongdoing.
After Parolin’s statement, a fellow Vaticanista messaged me with Sergeant Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes claiming, “I know nothing!”
The 1960’s sitcom took place in a German POW camp in World War II, which the prisoners used as a base to carry out espionage and sabotage against the Nazi regime. Schultz was often in a position to observe the derring-do of the Allied prisoners, but chose to ignore what was right before his eyes.
I found the analogy lacking, first of all, because Schultz wasn’t in charge of the POW camp – the ineffectual Col. Klink was – but I couldn’t fail to agree the whole affair had the whiff of a television sitcom about it.
The London investment is equivalent to the Vatican’s annual budget, and the idea of a few laymen and a couple of prelates sinking it into a dubious deal, without proper oversight and checks and balances is, well, laughable.
Especially when the details of the scandal emerged: The Vatican didn’t own all of the building at first, and were being nickel-and-dimed (if those nickels and dimes were worth millions of euros apiece) over incidentals. In the end, the Vatican just bought the building outright – a process that also involved millions of euros in fees having to be paid.
The impending dread was more reminiscent of The Office than Hogan’s Heroes.
Of course, this Vatican sitcom has a straight man: The one seemingly competent person sucked into the middle of the maelstrom.
The Vatican has also charged officials at the Financial Information Authority (since renamed the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority) the Vatican’s financial watchdog agency, with abuse of office.
One of those is Rene Brülhart, the man who set the office up and put the Vatican on the whitelist.
The Swiss lawyer is highly respected in the financial intelligence community, and almost single-handedly pulled the Vatican’s financial system into respectability. His office had no oversight over the Secretariat of State’s dealings, and mostly dealt with the Vatican bank.
The bank, in fact, refused a March 4, 2019, request to loan the Secretariat of State 150 million euro to help settle the London fiasco. The letter making the request was signed by Parolin.
Brülhart’s inclusion on the charge list is so surprising, Crux’s John Allen floated the idea that it might be a form of payback from the prosecutor for a “perceived grudge” over the Swiss lawyer’s good press.
Brülhart said the charge “is a procedural blunder that will be immediately clarified by the organs of Vatican justice as soon as the defense will be able to exercise its rights,” adding that he always acted with “correctness, loyalty and in the exclusive interest of the Holy See and its organs.”
The Vatican has a long history of misadventures with money, which are frequently tied to various financial scandals that plague Italy itself.
Brülhart was brought in because he was an outsider with experience: He put the microstate and onetime offshore haven Lichtenstein on the financial whitelist.
Even if vindicated in court, his experience will probably make any other outsiders hesitant to take on such a job. It’s no fun being the straight man, especially if it sets you up to be the fall guy.