Lifestyle & Belief

Pope Francis appoints clouded figure as financial reformer


The headquarters of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), the Vatican Bank, on February 18, 2012.


Gabriel Bouys

The Vatican's announcement Monday that Pope Francis has created a new Secretariat of the Economy, with broad oversight of Vatican finances, might be titled the "Vindication of Viganò."

The new office is tasked with picking up the reform job that, in effect, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò began in 2009 as Secretary-General of the Governorate of Vatican City-State. That long title means “governor” and his welcoming committee was a financial sinkhole. The Holy See was $10 million in the red when Viganò took over.

Viganò slashed expenditures, upended contracts with dubious vendors and in less than two years created a $45 million surplus.

His reward as financial reformer at a time when the Vatican Bank was making bad headlines for alleged money laundering was getting sacked by then-Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone. At Bertone’s urging, Pope Benedict gave him a new position as papal nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, to Washington, DC — a post he didn’t want and a move he asked Benedict to rescind so he could dig deeper into financial reforms. Benedict sided with Bertone. Washington is where Viganò works today.

Coming Tuesday, February 25 on FRONTLINE: Secrets of the Vatican

To lead the new Secretariat of the Economy — a role that matches up closely with the expanded job description Viganò wanted — Pope Francis named Cardinal George Pell of Australia.

Although Pell is one of eight members on the special cardinals’ commission Francis appointed to assist him in forging reforms, the cardinal from Sydney is anything but a reformer. Some consider him an obstructionist.

“I would agree that we’ve been slow to address the anguish of victims and dealt with it very slowly,” a chastened Pell told a parliamentary inquiry into clergy child abuse last November in Melbourne, according to The Australian.

Pell’s handling of the clergy abuse crisis in Australia has drawn a drumbeat of criticism; however most of the notorious cases occurred before his tenure. One case did not elude parliamentary members' attention: that of Gerald Ridsdale, who briefly shared quarters with Pell, then a bishop. Ridsdale is a convicted serial molester of young boys and girls in towns and cities across Australia while he was a priest. The church has been accused of moving Ridsdale from parish to parish as new crimes were reported.

“At that stage nobody knew — well, I certainly didn’t — what proved to be the full extent of [Ridsdale's] infamous career,” Pell told the parliamentary committee.

In recommending stronger laws to prevent institutional leaders, in church and society, from failure to report crimes against children, parliamentary committee member Andrea Coote said: "In regard to the Catholic Church specifically, the committee found that rather than exposing criminal abuses in the Catholic Church, it minimalized and trivialized the problems."

"A sliding morality was adopted in the Catholic Church which emphasizes the interests of the perpetrator and the church," Coote charged. "The Catholic Church appears to have compartmentalized the issues in order to avoid obvious moral conflicts."

With the Vatican Bank and Vatileaks scandals making international headlines last March as Francis was elected, Pell told the Associated Press at the time, “Problems there have been, problems there are, and this is one factor that has to be addressed as the new pope comes into office.”

“It would be useful to have a pope who can pull the show together, lift the morale of the Curia (Vatican bureaucracy), and strengthen a bit of the discipline there and effectively draw on all the energies and goodness of the great majority of the people in the Curia.”

The Curia was balkanized under Bertone, who drew fire from supporters of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and his predecessor as Secretary of State.

Francis has since replaced Bertone with longtime diplomat Pietro Parolin. Sodano, 85, remains in his position.

The moves announced Monday include a Council for the Economy, composed of 15 members, eight of them nominated by cardinals and bishops, and seven lay experts “of various nationalities, with recognized professional financial competences,” the Vatican announced.

Pell will work with the new council in overseeing financial reforms and report directly to Pope Francis.

But in a sign of counter-balancing by the pope, the Vatican press office stated that a new auditor-general will be "empowered to conduct audits of any agency of the Holy See and Vatican City State at any time." That is a job roughly equivalent to the Inspector General position that many American states and municipalities have created to ensure swift, probing access to financial records in departments of government.

The Vatican announcement does not say whether the Vatican Bank, otherwise known as Institute for the Works of Religion, will be subject to inspection by an auditor-general; however, a team of international financial consultants, with auditing leverage, have been examining Vatican Bank accounts for several months.

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is the author of "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church."