What Cardinal Pell thinks about the Vatican financial scandal he suspected long ago
ROME (AP) – Cardinal George Pell takes advantage of his first Roman source since being exonerated of sexual abuse in his native Australia: he receives visitors to his Vatican apartment, sips midday Aperol spritzes at the café in outdoors downstairs and religiously keeps abreast of news of a Holy See financial scandal he suspected years ago.
Pell, who turns 80 in June, is bolstered by the perks of being a retired Vatican cardinal as he tries to rebuild a life and career that has been turned upside down by his criminal trials and 404 days gone by in solitary confinement in Melbourne.
“I have become very Italian,” Pell told a visitor one morning, referring to his daily routine of checking for coronavirus cases in Italy. “I check the statistics every day. But I am regional: I am going straight away to Lazio ”, which surrounds Rome.
Pell left his post as Prefect of the Vatican’s Economy Ministry in 2017 to return home to face charges of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choristers in the vestry of Melbourne Cathedral in 1996.
After a deadlocked first jury, a second convicted him and he was sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was only upheld on appeal to be dismissed by the High Court of Australia, which in April 2020 found there was reasonable doubt in the testimony of its sole accuser.
Pell and his supporters have firmly denied the charges and believe he was the scapegoat for all crimes in the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse. Yet victims and critics alike say Pell epitomizes all that is wrong with the way the church has handled the issue of sexual abuse and denounced his exoneration.
Pell spoke to The Associated Press ahead of the publication in the United States of the second volume of his prison memoir, “Prison Journal, Volume 2,” recounting the middle four months of his sentence. The book traces her emotional state after the appeals court upheld her initial conviction and ends with a sign of hope after the High Court of Australia agreed to hear her case.
“Looking back, I was probably overly optimistic about bail,” Pell says now, attributing his “half-full glass” attitude to his Christian faith.
Pell still has many detractors – he freely uses the term “enemies” – who believe him to be guilty. But in Rome, even many of his critics believed in his innocence, and since his return in September he has enjoyed a well-publicized papal audience and regularly participates in Vatican events.
Pell had returned to Rome to clean his apartment, intending to make Sydney his permanent home.
But he never left. As the COVID-19 resurgence in Italy struck, Pell spent the winter watching the Vatican corruption and incompetence scandal he tried to uncover as Pope Francis’ finance czar publicly exploded from in a way he admits he never saw coming.
During the three years that Pell was in charge of Vatican finances, he tried to find out how much money the Secretariat of State had in its asset portfolio, what its investments were, and what it was doing with the dozens of millions of dollars. in donations to the Pope from the faithful.
He largely failed because his enemy in the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, blocked his efforts to impose international accounting and auditing standards. But now Becciu has been sacked, Francis has robbed the secretariat of its ability to manage money, and Vatican prosecutors are investigating the office’s € 350 million investment in a real estate firm in London.
No indictment has been issued after two years of investigation. But in court documents, prosecutors accused an Italian broker involved in the London deal of trying to extort € 15m in fees from the Holy See, and they accused a handful of Vatican officials of ‘involvement.
Those same court documents, however, made it clear that the entire venture had been approved by senior officials at the Secretariat of State, and witnesses say Francis himself approved “fair” compensation for the broker. Yet, it is known that only lower-ranking Vatican officials and outside businessmen are investigated.
Pell said he was comforted that Vatican prosecutors were on the case, given the tens of millions of euros that were lost in the deal. But he said he was concerned about possible problems with the investigation and wondered if the truth will ever come out.
He noted that a British judge recently rendered a devastating ruling against the Vatican in a related asset seizure case against broker, Gianluigi Torzi. The judge said Vatican prosecutors made “appalling” omissions and misrepresentations in their legal aid request, and his ruling essentially dismantled much of their case against Torzi.
“He used the word ‘dreadful’ about skill level,” Pell said. The issues flagged in the UK ruling are “a matter of concern,” said Pell, for whom due process issues are particularly dear.
“It’s a matter of basic jurisdiction and justice,” Pell said. “We must act according to the standards of justice.”