Early next month, the trial resumes of Cardinal Angelo Becciu and nine others charged with a number of serious irregularities relating to Vatican finances – embezzlement, money laundering and abuse of office. Cardinal Becciu is the most prominent, being not only a former close associate of the pope, but the cardinal responsible for the advancement of canonisation causes; the others include individuals associated with financial oversight at the Vatican, and Cecilia Marogna, a glamorous figure accused of appropriating $575,000 intended for the ransom of kidnapped nuns, and spending some of it on designer handbags.
The opening days of the trial in July were widely covered – the spectacle of a cardinal on trial in a court convened in a hall in the Vatican Museums is irresistible; the allegations about Miss Marogna and her handbags attracted particular attention. There are likely to be a stream of revelations in the course of the trial – likely to last several months – which promise to be both compelling and unedifying.
The pope has staked much of his moral credibility on reforming Vatican finances, and cleaning up its Stygian accounting practises, a role he first gave to the now acquitted Cardinal Pell. In short, a great deal hangs on the outcome of this trial.
Some of the enormous sums that are alleged to have been misappropriated are from Peter’s Pence, the pope’s personal charitable fund to which the faithful around the world contribute directly in church collections. They do so on the understanding that the money is not spent on administration but on projects the pope supports. The notion that some of this engagingly modest-sounding fund may have been salted away on dodgy investments and misappropriated by financiers will not encourage contributions.
This year, it turns out that contributions to Peter’s Pence in Italy fell by 40 per cent between 2017 and 2021. Obviously, some of the shortfall can be attributed to Covid-related church closures; the effect of the Becciu trial will only be evident next year.
But it is not the only sign of disaffection by the faithful. The sum allocated directly by Italians to charitable causes, including the church, through the tax system has also fallen, from 32 per cent to 29 per cent this year (of those who donate, some 70 per cent allocate the sum to the Church).
The problem is not just the diminution in funding that this entails, although it will be significant; it is the loss of trust in the church that it suggests. In Germany, there has been a calamitous decline in Church membership as evidenced by tax contributions to the Church – in these terms, 220,000 people left the Church last year, slightly more than left the Evangelical churches. Financial irregularities may not account for most of this exodus, which has larger causes, but it is indicative of an alienation from the institution to which financial scandals contribute.
The faithful are on the whole financially aware and accustomed to financial transparency in their normal lives and in their parishes; if they are to continue to support the Church, they will expect similar transparency.
Pope Francis made a start this summer when he issued the equivalent of a combined financial statement of the Church’s assets. The trial of Cardinal Becciu, by a secular judge (unprecedented for a cardinal), Giuseppe Pignatone, a retired chief prosecutor of Rome who previously took on the Mafia in Sicily, is suggestive of seriousness in this latest bid to tackle corruption.
Reforming church finances was originally the job of Cardinal Pell. He appointed Libero Milone, formerly head of the accountants Deloitte in Italy, as the Vatican’s first auditor-general. His work came to an abrupt end when Angelo Becciu, now on trial, accused him of unauthorised investigations into Vatican officials. As for Cardinal Pell, his work in overhauling the Vatican finances also came to an abrupt end when he was wrongly accused of and imprisoned for sexual offences of which he has been entirely cleared. The pope should consider bringing back Cardinal Pell to help oversee the financial reforms. The trial raises serious questions about Vatican judgement and thoroughly vindicates Pell. His concerns seem to have been right after all.
And reform is badly needed. Among the matters the Becciu trial in October will deal with is the alleged mismanagement of a flawed property deal for converting a former Harrods warehouse in Sloane Avenue into luxury flats. It is worth asking what part of that transaction would the apostles have recognised as being of a piece with the Church’s mission?Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both been eloquent in their critique of capitalism and of the workings of the global financial system. What force do their words have when the Vatican’s own finances are so tainted?
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund