Further revelations leave Vatican all at sea

The publication of two new books has intensified the Vatican leaks scandal and highlight the struggles of Pope Francis as he tries to reform the sprawling bureaucracy, writes Nicole Winfield

Further revelations leave Vatican all at sea

THE Vatican’s new leaks scandal intensified as a book detailed the mismanagement and internal resistance that has been thwarting Pope Francis’ financial reform efforts.

Citing confidential documents, it exposed millions of euros in potential lost rental revenue, the scandal of the Vatican’s saint-making machine, greedy monsignors, and a professional-style break-in at the Vatican.

Merchants in the Temple, by the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, is due out tomorrow . Its publication, and that of a second book, come days after the Vatican arrested two members of Francis’ financial reform commission in an investigation into stolen documents.

The Vatican described the books as “fruit of a grave betrayal of the trust given by the Pope, and, as far as the authors go, of an operation to take advantage of a gravely illicit act of handing over confidential documentation”.

“Publications of this nature do not help in any way to establish clarity and truth, but rather generate confusion and partial and tendentious conclusions,” the Vatican said.

The arrests and books mark a new phase in the so-called Vatileaks scandal. The saga began in 2012 with an earlier Nuzzi expose, peaked with the conviction of Pope Benedict XVI’s butler on charges he supplied Nuzzi with stolen documents, and ended a year later when a clearly exhausted Benedict resigned, unable to carry on.

With the scandal still fresh, Francis was elected in 2013 on a mandate from his fellow cardinals to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and clean up its opaque finances.

He set out promptly by creating a commission of eight experts to gather information from all Vatican offices on the Holy See’s overall financial situation, which by that time was dire.

Monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, a high-ranking Vatican official affiliated with the Opus Dei movement, and Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian public relations executive, were both members — and now are accused in the leaks probe.

Chaouqui was quoted by Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Stampa yesterday as saying she had nothing to do with the leaks and that she had tried to prevent Vallejo Balda from revealing Vatican secrets.

Nuzzi’s book focuses on the work of the commission and the resistance it encountered in getting information out of Vatican departments that have long enjoyed near-complete autonomy in budgeting, hiring and spending.

“Holy Father ... There is a complete absence of transparency in the bookkeeping both of the Holy See and the Governorate,” five international auditors wrote to Francis in June 2013, according to Nuzzi’s book. “Costs are out of control.”

Citing emails, minutes of meetings, recorded private conversations and memos, the book paints a picture of a Vatican bureaucracy entrenched in a culture of mismanagement, waste, and secrecy.

It might not be far off the mark given that Francis has repeatedly and publicly warned the Roman Curia against engaging in “intrigue, gossip, cliques, favouritism, and partiality”, and acting more like a royal court than an institution of service.

Last Christmas he delivered an infamous dressing down of his closest collaborators, citing the “15 ailments of the Curia” that included living “hypocritical” double lives and suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

That said, the book is clearly written from the point of view of the commission members, sympathetic to their plight and setting up an “us against them” narrative of the new reformers battling the Vatican’s entrenched Old Guard, without addressing why the Old Guard might have had reason to distrust them.

The book cites a memo listing six priorities when the commission began work, starting with the need to get a handle on the Vatican’s vast property holdings. Nuzzi cites a commission report that found that the value of the real estate was some €2.7bn, seven times higher than the amount entered onto the balance sheets.

Rents were sometimes 30% to 100% below market, the commission found, including some apartments that were given free to cardinals and bureaucrats as part of their overall compensation or retirement packages.

The book says that if market rates were applied, homes given to employees would generate income of €19.4m rather than the €6.2m currently recorded, while other “institutional” buildings which today generate no income would generate income of €30.4m.

The No 2 priority on the commission’s list was to get a handle on the management of bank accounts for the Vatican’s “postulators”, the officials who spearhead candidates for sainthood.

The process — which involves painstaking research into the “heroic” deeds of saintly candidates and the search for miracle cures — has always been steeped in secrecy.

After the Vatican’s saint-making office told the commission it had no documentation about the postulators’ funding or bank accounts, the commission had the postulators’ accounts frozen at the Vatican bank, Nuzzi said.

In an indication of the controversy the commission’s work engendered, Nuzzi recounts a previously little-known incident: A March 30, 2014, break-in at the commission’s offices and theft of commission documents. The burglary was clearly an inside job, as the thieves knew which locker to target to get the documents.

Finally, Nuzzi recounts the tale of Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, the number two in the Vatican City state administration, who wanted a fancier apartment.

Top-ranking Vatican cardinals often enjoy enormous apartments, with some commanding upward of 400 square meters apiece.

When Sciacca’s neighbour, an elderly priest, was hospitalised for a long period, Sciacca took advantage of the absence to break through a wall separating their residences and incorporated an extra room into his apartment, furniture and all, Nuzzi recounts.

The elderly prelate eventually came home to find his possessions in boxes, and died a short time later, the book says.

Francis, who lives in a hotel room, summarily demoted Sciacca, forcing him to move out.

The second book, Avarice, by La Repubblica Vatican reporter Emiliano Fittipaldi, details financial malfeasance at the Vatican, citing among other documents reports by independent auditors.

Among the revelations, Fittipaldi wrote that a foundation to support the Bambino Gesu paediatric hospital in Rome paid €200,000 toward the renovation of the former Vatican number two’s sprawling apartment, under an agreement that the apartment would be used also for hospital functions.

Former Vatican secretary of state Tarciso Bertone came under fire last year for the apartment, described as a “mega-penthouse,” in contrast to Francis’ vision of a “poor Church”.

Fittipaldi also said €378,000 donated in 2013 by churches worldwide to help the poor, the so-called Peter’s Pence, wound up in an off-the-books account that had been used in the past to pay Vatican department expenses.

‘Avarice’ will be published tomorrow

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