Vatican financial crimes indictments a sign of progress
(RNS) – Catholic worshipers are rightly outraged by the news of financial crimes in the Vatican, especially as the latest alleged crimes involve Peter’s Pence, collecting for the Pope’s charities. But the announcement last week of the indictments by Vatican prosecutors is not a scandal but a sign of progress.
The Vatican has indicted six former Vatican officials, including the Cardinal who was behind a hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate investment in London. Italian businessmen who worked with the Vatican on the investment are also indicted, along with a woman accused of buying luxury goods with Vatican funds intended to ransom Catholic hostages.
The charges include embezzlement, corruption, extortion, money laundering, fraud, abuse of office and forging public documents.
In recent years, experts from Moneyval, the international agency in charge of money laundering, have complimented the Vatican on improving its laws and procedures, but they have questioned the lack of prosecution for financial crimes. In its most recent report, Moneyval warned the Vatican that it was still exposed to money laundering and that it faced financial risks from “insiders”.
Many have speculated that the Vatican preferred to cover up these crimes when they involved cardinals and other clerics. Vatican officials feared the scandal would damage the church’s image and cut donations. In addition, the accused were colleagues and friends.
In 2017, when two lay people were accused of embezzling money from the Bambino Gesu hospital to finance renovations to a cardinal’s apartment, the cardinal was not charged. He was not even called to testify at the secular trial. The occupant of the apartment was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, one of the closest collaborators of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and former Secretary of State.
The Vatican also lacked competent prosecutors or investigators to unearth the truth.
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In March, a Vatican presentation to a UK court was so ill-prepared that it was laughed out of court. The judge ruled that the Vatican’s demand to seize the bank accounts of Gianluigi Torzi, the broker involved in his disastrous real estate investment in London, was “appalling” and riddled with “non-disclosure and misrepresentation.”
First, Pope Francis two months ago changed the rules so that cardinals can now be tried like anyone else in a Vatican tribunal with lay judges. Before that, only the Pope could judge a cardinal. The Pope also demanded more financial transparency and disclosure of conflicts of interest. For the first time in modern history, a cardinal and his secretary are accused of financial crimes by the Vatican.
It is not just any cardinal either; it is Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who dreamed of one day becoming Pope. Before becoming a cardinal, he was sostituto (deputy) in the Vatican Secretariat of State – technically a post just under the Secretary of State, but in reality the sostituto acts as the Pope’s chief of staff. It was as a sostituto that Becciu orchestrated the Vatican’s disastrous $ 400 million investment in London real estate in 2014.
Second, the Pope has strengthened the Vatican legal team dealing with financial crimes. In 2019, he appointed Giuseppe Pignatone, a former Italian prosecutor known for his anti-Mafia efforts, to head the Vatican court. He worked with investigators from other countries to uncover the truth. The indictments announced last week are the result of his investigations.
The other good news in the current round of indictments is that this investigation does not involve the Vatican bank, which has been tarnished by major financial scandals in the past. The Vatican bank was cleaned up thanks to Benedict’s insistence that it be subject to Moneyval’s review. It cost millions of dollars when forensic accountants combed through the bank’s accounts.
In fact, it was the bank that first sounded the alarm on the London property deal when the Secretary of State attempted to secure a loan to cover its losses. For the bank, saying ‘no’ to the Secretary of State, who is on its board of directors, was an extraordinary act of financial responsibility and shows that banking reforms are working. There are other parts of the Vatican that need to be cleaned up.
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What is the next?
A preliminary hearing will take place on July 27, but don’t expect a quick trial. The Vatican, like Italy, is not known for its speedy trials, especially with complex financial issues. Tons of paper will be submitted, and there will be long intervals between actual court sessions as the judges review the documents.
The cardinal will no doubt say that he is innocent and that he was duped by the people with whom he had to deal. Those outside the Vatican who worked with the Cardinal will say he knew and approved of what they were doing, and if he didn’t understand the consequences, it was his fault, not theirs.
Will the prosecution be able to prove its thesis? It remains to be seen. Although the appointment of Pignatone is encouraging, remember that the “appalling” case rejected by the British justice was prepared after his appointment. It is not encouraging.
Moreover, the most surprising indictment is that of René Brülhart, the former chairman of the Vatican Financial Reporting Authority, who enjoys an international reputation for integrity and competence. The evidence against him must be overwhelming or his peers will conclude that he was created by enemies who opposed his efforts to investigate Vatican finances. This could undermine the credibility of the judicial process.
Finally, questions remain unanswered about the role of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, in the scandal. It was his shop that made the investments and it was he who requested the loan from the Vatican bank. The Vatican says it had not been “effectively informed to be fully aware of the legal effects that the different classes of actions would cause.” At a minimum, he should testify at trial, lest it appear those closest to Francis may be immune from prosecution while their subordinates fall.
There are three lessons to be learned from this fiasco.
First, papal leadership is needed to control Vatican finances. Most popes want to be pastors and therefore delegate finances to others. It does not work.
Second, the church must put in place financial controls like those of any well-run nonprofit or business. The Vatican doesn’t have to invent something new; there are already policies and procedures the church can use.
Third, cleaning up the Vatican’s finances costs money, as the Vatican banking reform has shown. The Vatican is heavily criticized for spending millions on accountants and outside lawyers, but it is cheaper in the long run. The credibility of Vatican financial managers is already diminished because they are not paid as well as their counterparts in the secular world. Some employees see “side deals” as a way to compensate for low wages.
There is more work to be done. Many financial entities in the Vatican, including the city-state, Propaganda Fide (the mission fund) and APSA, the Vatican’s office of investments and finance, need to be examined. Real estate holdings in Rome and around the world need to be regularized, as do many contracts and purchases.
The Vatican Bank has shown how to flush out abuses and avoid scandals. Since the Vatican’s finances are currently in the red, some major Catholic donors must come to the Pope with a detailed plan and the money to clean up the Vatican’s finances. Once the external auditors arrive, the Pope must make it clear that anyone obstructing their work will be fired.
Vatican financial scandals have repeatedly tarnished the image of the church. It is time for the Vatican to pull itself together. Ironically, this will mean more bad news in the future as crimes and incompetence are uncovered. But these should not be seen as scandals but as good news.