Vatican finance lawsuit sheds light on Secretariat of State – Catholic World Report
Vatican City, May 25, 2022 / 05:20 (CNA).
With 10 defendants, the Vatican finance trial could best be handled as three different trials. However, there is a common thread: the role of the Secretariat of State, the most powerful dicastery of the Vatican.
The last three trial hearings took place last week. May 18 and 19, Cardinal Angelo Becciu answered questions from the Vatican promoter of justice (prosecutor), civil parties and other lawyers.
During the long interrogation, during which moments of tension were not lacking, Becciu pointed out at one point that he “strongly doubts that the [Vatican’s] the auditor general could have known the accounts of the [Secretariat of State’s] Desk.”
It should be remembered that the origin of the trial is to be found in a report by the auditor generalwho is responsible for financial audits of Vatican entities.
Becciu argued that the auditor could not know the situation in detail because “the Secretariat of State was completely autonomous from a financial point of view”.
“To violate his autonomy, a specific mandate from the pope was necessary,” Becciu said, “but that never happened. Indeed, in 2016 there was a rescript given to us by Cardinal Parolin which reaffirmed this autonomy.
2016 was a decisive year. There were growing tensions between the Secretariat of State and the Economics Secretariatthen led by Cardinal George Pell. A major flashpoint was the decision of the Secretary of the Economy to enter into an audit contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which allowed the company to also audit the accounts of the Secretary of State.
The Secretariat of State is an organ of government which enjoyed particular financial autonomy and, above all, the confidentiality of its financial statements. Consequently, tensions were very high until the Holy See renegotiates the terms of the audit contract.
Later in 2016, Pope Francis released the motu owner “I bless temporali(“The Temporal Goods”). He sought to better separate oversight and administrative functions within the Vatican, removing some responsibilities from the Secretariat for the Economy and returning them to the administration of the patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA).
“The Secretariat of State was a dicastery, but a sui generis [unique] dicastery,” Becciu explained. “The standards come from it; therefore, he could not stand the standards.
Pope Francis effectively ended this peculiarity of the Secretariat of State in 2020, when he decided to transfer responsibility for the administration of funds and investments of the Secretary of State at APSA. This decision arguably weakened the governing body.
But the board also had a specific role in helping the Roman curia. In previous interrogations, Becciu pointed out that the annual report Peter’s penny collection grossed around 50 million euros (about $54 million). But the deficit of the Holy See was higher. It was therefore necessary, he suggested, to make investments to give the Holy See greater liquidity.
Investments were supervised by the Secretary of State, which over the years had put in place a complex financial architecture, using various current accounts, some of which were located abroad, and always seeking investments of a particular type.
This was also the case for the investment in a luxury property in london, at the center of the trial, which Becciu said was overseen by the administrative office. “If there were critical issues and [his deputy Monsignor Alberto] Perlasca didn’t tell me, he was guilty of serious misconduct,” Becciu said.
Peter’s Pence was not the only source of funds used to fill holes in the Vatican’s budget. The Institute of Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the “Vatican bank”, makes an annual donation to the Holy See. For several years, the check from the IOR was for 50 million euros, mainly intended to “cover the expenses of Vatican Radio and the nunciatures”.
But in 2012, when the IOR’s assets stood at 86.6 million euros (about $93 million), dues began to decline alongside a decline in profits, eventually settling at around 30 million euros ($32 million).
The Secretariat of State, as the central organ of the Holy See, was called upon not only to manage itself economically and to make investments, but also to help the Holy See to survive financially. Yet, as subsequent events showed, he was unequipped for this demanding task.
Tirabassi, a civil servant who worked for more than 30 years in the Secretariat of State, shed light on the functioning of the dicastery during his interrogation on May 20.
He also pointed out that the Secretariat of State has a separate budget from those of the other dicasteries. But it was only recently that this budget was discussed with the Secretariat for the Economy. The Prefecture of Economic Affairs of the Holy See, which operated from 1967 to 2016, mainly had a budgetary control function.
Tirabassi explained that when he came to the Secretariat of State there was an Obolo fund – Peter’s Pence is known in Italian as “Obolo di San Pietro— with an office in the dicastery dedicated to collecting donations.
The donations were managed by opening dedicated accounts in various banks and corresponding institutions (such as IOR, APSA, Credito Artigiano and Poste Italiana). Within the IOR alone, “there were about 70 to 80 accounts in circulation”.
In the mid-1990s, this arrangement gave way to a more streamlined management of Vatican finances.
Faced with increasingly complicated financial transparency requirements, the management of all the accounts was becoming too demanding. Thus, it was decided to pool resources into a single fund called the “Obolo Fund”. The promoter of Vatican justice described it as a “current account scheme”.
“The Holy See was in trouble,” recalls Tirabassi. “Furthermore, the debt has cost the Secretariat of State dearly. A new accounting management was then suggested, dematerialize existing accounts and improved liquidity obtained from active assets.
A new investment policy has developed, increasingly focused on real estate assets, in particular the acquisition of buildings to house nunciatures, which represent one of the highest costs.
The term “Obolo” therefore does not refer exclusively to Peter’s Pence, which the Secretariat of State has not managed for some time. In this case, it is the fund managed by the Secretariat of State, which has kept the name “Obolo” although it relates to the resources of the dicastery.
Becciu has repeatedly claimed that the Secretary of State only uses “its assets” for investments in London property, dismissing suggestions that the annual monies raised by the Peter’s Pence collection were used.
Yet even if Peter’s Pence collections had been used, it would not have been illegal. The Obolo di San Pietroa old institution, has been seen as a means of supporting the Holy See since at least the 19th century. Its main objective is therefore to support the institution, while helping the poor.
Could it be that in the incident that triggered the Finance Trial, the Auditor General misunderstood the structures of the Vatican and their raison d’être? If that were the case, the whole process would have to be rethought.
Misunderstandings were constant during these years of economic reform. A purely financial view tends to overlook the history and particular structures of the Holy See, which contain a series of checks and balances settled over time.
The Holy See has always strived to respect global standards without betraying its specificities. The risk now is that the Holy See will only borrow international norms without creating its own jurisprudence. If so, regardless of the outcome of the trial, the Holy See will be institutionally weakened.
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