Rome — A choir of voices has begun lauding Cardinal George Pell for cleaning up the Vatican's money management operations. And the strongest notes in this hymn of praise come from the basso profondo of the Australian cardinal himself.
The 73-year-old Pell, who is officially the prefect of the Vatican's recently created Secretariat for the Economy, gave a glowing progress report of his financial reform efforts in an 1,800-word article published last week in Britain's Catholic Herald.
Modern and transparent with checks and balances
He made it clear that Pope Francis was mandated by "an almost unanimous consensus among the cardinals" to carry out financial reform. He said they were "well under way and already past the point where it would be possible to return to the 'bad old days,' " even though much remained to be done. He added that the basic program for reform was drawn up by an "international body of lay experts" that the pope appointed and was based on the following three principles: first, the adoption of "contemporary international financial standards" and "accounting procedures"; second, transparency in producing annual financial balance sheets; and third, "something akin to a separation of powers" with "multiple sources of authority."
Yet Pell made it clear that his secretariat, above all others, possessed "authority over all economic and administrative activities" in the Vatican, even though its policies would be "determined by the Council for the Economy." That body is headed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and includes eight other cardinals and seven laymen. "Having decision-making lay members at this level is an innovation in the Vatican," Pell wrote.
His article highlighted several other positive developments in the way the Vatican will manage its financial resources in the future. Indeed, there is much to be praised. But the article has also set off alarm bells and raised concerns over a reform that is deeply unpopular among Vatican employees fearful of ending up on the wrong end of the stick. It also never mentioned why the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide), a virtual empire that has a vast patrimony of investments and prime properties in central Rome and elsewhere, is apparently not subject to the reforms.
Blasting the Italians
Characteristically, the article was blunt. It was also less than flattering toward Italians and even expressed a patronizing attitude toward their business practices. The cardinal said a British parliamentarian had asked him why Vatican authorities had allowed the financial situation "to lurch along, disregarding modern accounting standards, for so many decades." He said the politician's question "was one of the first that would come to our minds as English-speakers." Then he added that it was also "one that might be much lower on the list for people in another culture, such as the Italians."
Of course, Italians have always been the principal managers of the Vatican. And a number of them currently in positions of power are said to have been less than amused by their Australian confrere's not-so-subtle dig. They also did not appreciate this headline-grabbing assertion in his article: "We have discovered that the situation is much healthier than it seemed, because some hundreds of millions of Euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet."
The implication, of course, was that the Italians were cooking the books. That impression was reinforced a day after Pell's article was published when it was announced that two former managers of the so-called Vatican bank (Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR) and an attorney, all Italians, were under investigation for embezzlement.
An Italian backlash?
Already within hours after the cardinal's piece appeared in the Catholic Herald, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement of clarification.
"It should be noted that Cardinal Pell did not speak of illegal, illicit or badly administrated funds, but of funds that do not appear in the official financial statements of the Holy See or Vatican City State," it said.
"In any case, it was known and has been explained before, even publicly, by the Prefecture of Economic Affairs, that the consolidated budgets of the Holy See and Vatican City which were submitted every year to the Council of 15 Cardinals, did not in any way embrace all the many agencies that depend on the Vatican, but only the principal institutions of the Curia and the State," the brief statement concluded.
It was issued in Italian only, somewhat odd considering that press office statements on Vatican reforms generally have been in multiple languages. But it is also not surprising given that a number of influential Italians in the Curia long have bristled at what they perceive as an Australian cardinal's condescending attitude toward them.
Not all these Italians will go quietly into the night as Pell tries to bust up their longstanding dominance in administrating the hundreds of institutions, bureaus and offices that fall beneath the wide umbrella known as the Holy See and Vatican City State.
If history is any indication, they will try to impede the pace of reform through partial or noncompliance. And some will do what is necessary to make life as difficult for the reformers, especially Pell's closest aides. One is his former business manager from the Sydney archdiocese, a layman named Danny Casey who is known to have close ties to Opus Dei. He effectively runs the secretariat, and even supporters for the cardinal fear that he will be the first casualty if the old guard mounts a backlash.
"I feel sorry for Danny Casey," said a high-ranking Curia official. "The Italians are going to chew him up."
The Scola connection
Another of Pell's close aides, though apparently many in the Vatican are unaware of it, is Msgr. Brian Ferme. He is actually the prelate-secretary of Marx's Council for the Economy. But he is Pell's man. Repeatedly and erroneously identified as British, the monsignor was actually born and raised in south Australia. He was a longtime Salesian of Don Bosco before leaving the order soon after getting his doctorate (in Rome and Oxford). He incardinated into the diocese of Portsmouth, England, though he never served there. Instead, he taught mostly in Rome. He spent the past decade in Venice, where Cardinal Angelo Scola, another of his cardinal-patrons, hired him to run an institute for canon law that the cardinal set up just after becoming patriarch of the historic diocese in 2002.
Casey and Ferme are just two of Pell's various aides likely to feel the heat of any resistance to Pell's financial reorganization at the Vatican. For his part, the cardinal seems impervious to any pushback, obstacles or opposition. He's demonstrated his indomitability many times before, most recently as head of the Vox Clara Committee, the group that bulldozed objections from the majority of world's English-speaking bishops and produced the current translation of the Roman Missal.
Many people, especially in Australia, where Pell has always been a controversial figure, wonder why Pope Francis brought him to the Vatican and why he made him an original member of his special papal advisory group, the Council of Cardinals. After all, he is hardly anyone's idea of a "Francis bishop."
For example, he's one of only a handful of cardinals that fervently supports use of the pre-Vatican II Mass. He's a self-professed climate change skeptic. He's a bricks-and-mortar bishop who spent loads of money on building projects, such as establishing a Catholic university in Australia and turning a former religious convent in Rome into an upscale hotel for Australian "pilgrims." Ironically, he's been accused of lack of transparency in the expenditures.
On top of all this, it is also pretty well understood that he backed Angelo Scola of Milan at the last conclave as the main rival of the Argentine Jesuit named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who emerged as the new bishop of Rome. Scola, 73, is a Vatican outsider, and many Italian bishops mistrust him because his deep roots in the Communion and Liberation movement. They also resent what they believe was his clear ambition to become pope, indicated by his successful effort to get transferred from Venice to Milan in 2011.
So why did Pope Francis bring the Scola-linked George Pell to the Vatican? It's actually a win-win situation for the pope. The cardinals elected him, in part, to reform money management, something he's notorious for criticizing. By handing the task over to those who rivaled his election, he's put the onus on them to get this reform right. If it succeeds, the pope will win the praise. But if it fails, those who carried out the work in his name will bear the blame.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
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