Council of Cardinals focuses on another Vatican bank shakeup

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The group of cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the Catholic church's central bureaucracy has again focused its attention on the church's sometimes controversial financial practices, ahead of the expected resignation of the head of the so-called Vatican bank.

The Council of Cardinals, a group of prelates appointed by Francis last year as a sort of advisory "kitchen cabinet," is meeting Tuesday-Friday at the Vatican .

This week's meeting, the group's fifth, was anticipated to include discussion on a wide reshaping of the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia. But a press release from the Vatican on Wednesday focused mostly on financial matters and the Bank, an independent institution known formally as the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR).

News reports in recent days have indicated that the bank's chairman, Ernst von Freyberg, will be leaving as early as next week. Unknown is whether von Freyberg is leaving willingly or has been asked to step down.

The bank, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in statement Wednesday, "is in a time of natural and peaceful transition."

Freyberg's work, said Lombardi, "continues to be deeply appreciated and highly valued." More clarifications about his role, however, said the spokesman, are "indeed likely" next week.

Freyberg was appointed as the head of the bank in February 2013 in one of Pope Benedict XVI's final moves before his abdication. A German financier, Freyberg has struggled to bring transparency and accountability to the institution, which has been rocked by a number of scandals in past years.

Wednesday's statement from the Vatican gives a clue to why Freyberg's role is coming into question, mentioning that a new Vatican council for economic matters will also be meeting this week.

That council, known simply as the Council for the Economy, is part of a wide reform by Francis to create a new central authority at the Vatican for control of financial and administrative issues. It is pursuing its work alongside a new Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, which is being headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell.

Next week, said the Vatican statement, "there will be a significant press conference ... relating to the scope of the powers of the Council and the Secretariat for the Economy, including even the IOR."

Before next week's expected economic shakeup, the Council of Cardinals is to continue its meetings Thursday and Friday. Francis, the Vatican said, is taking part in all of the meetings.

Lombardi also announced Wednesday that the group, previously composed of eight cardinals, had expanded its membership to nine. Joining the council is Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who had already been taking part in the group's previous meetings.

Francis, said Lombardi, "has decided that [Parolin] participates in full as the other members of the Council, which at this point has nine members."

Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga serves as coordinator of the Council of Cardinals. The only U.S. prelate on the council is Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

O'Malley is also serving as a member of a new pontifical commission on clergy sexual abuse, which is expected to meet for the second time together at the Vatican on Sunday. News reports are indicating Francis may have an encounter with an international group of clergy sexual abuse survivors sometime next week following that meeting.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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