A couple of weeks ago, as the trial of Cardinal Becciu for corruption was announced in the Vatican, my parish priest made an announcement about the Peter’s Pence collection at the church door: it was all for the charitable work of the Holy See, he said; it all went on the Pope’s good works, none on administration. We nodded amiably – who doesn’t like Peter’s Pence? – and most people gave more than pence on the way out.
But a few days later it emerged that some of the funds involved the complicated fraud and embezzlement of which ten Vatican employees are being accused comes from donations from the faithful. The defendants are alleged to have cost the Holy See tens of millions of euros in bad investments, to have been involved with crooks and fraudsters and to have benefited themselves and their families and friends. One defendant, Cecilia Marogna, a security consultant, is accused of embezzling around €500,000 given her by Cardinal Becciu which was meant to be used in ransoming kidnapped nuns and spending some of it on designer handbags.
The Vatican said in a statement that its investigation included working with authorities in the United Arab Emirates, the UK, Jersey, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Switzerland, and has brought “to light a vast network of relationships with financial market operators that have generated significant losses for Vatican finances,” including “the resources destined for the Holy Father’s personal charitable works”.
Peter’s Pence is a little tainted, then.
This is only one aspect of the trial that make it quite compelling. The first is that the chief defendant, who claims he is absolutely innocent of all charges, is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, usually described in the papers as the Church’s saint-maker, on account of his involvement in canonisation procedures, but who also functioned as something like a chief of staff for two popes. If this is a fall then it is from a very great height.
The second aspect is the complexity of the charges. They illustrate what happens when the church involves itself in what Christ described in the least quoted passage in the Gospels – as “money, that tainted thing” (Luke, 16). One of the bad investments was nearly £300 million paid for a former Harrods warehouse in Sloane Avenue, which was meant to be turned into luxury flats. I do realise that the Vatican has proper responsibilities and commitments to fund, but what part of all this would have been intelligible to the Apostles as part of the Christian mission? Some time ago we learned that the Vatican also invested in the Elton John biopic, Rocket Man. That was hard to square with the Church’s mission too, but at least it made money. In short, there’s a startling distance between what the popes say about capitalism – Pope Benedict wrote eloquently about it – and what Vatican financiers do with the popes’ money.
The third aspect of all this is the relief that at least all this is no longer being hidden. Last week, the Vatican published what was effectively a consolidated financial statement, listing its assets. It was a new exercise in transparency and one assumes it was properly audited. That makes a start in transforming the culture. But the trial itself is something new – a cardinal being tried, not by other cardinals, but by a layman.
The presiding judge, Giuseppe Pignatone, is a retired chief prosecutor of Rome who previously took on the mafia and financial crimes in Sicily. That is perhaps the most heartening aspect of this sordid affair.
The fourth aspect is to do with Cardinal Pell. Before his trial which resulted in his wrongful conviction and imprisonment by a Victoria court for sexual assaults he could not possibly have committed, Cardinal Pell was the man responsible for overhauling the Vatican finances. In fact, it was rumoured – and at the time it was possible to see this as the usual Vatican conspiracy theories – that his trial was somehow engineered by enemies he had made within the Vatican in the course of his work into corruption. Whatever the truth of that, this trial is, I would have thought, something of a vindication of Cardinal Pell’s work. Is it not possible to right a grave injustice and to return him to the work at the Vatican from which he was unjustly removed?
The fifth aspect that emerges from this sordid affair is that the hideously complex finances of an institution with global commitments are still being overseen by clerics who do not necessarily have any prior expertise in this area – and indeed, why should they? But in ordinary parishes, people like retired accountants, volunteer to oversee the parish accounts and in my parish at least, the accounts are published every year in the newsletter. The Vatican, then, is lagging some way behind ordinary churches, who have already taken the principles of lay stewardship and public accountability on board. Pope Francis is changing the culture – but it should have happened sooner.
Still, of all the fabulous venues for a trial, the Vatican museum must be one of the most spectacular. That’s something.
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