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Scandal and dirty tactics in Vatican take shine off Pope's reform agenda

Fraud, the sacking of a loyal lieutenant and a row. Pope Francis has his hands full, writes Paddy Agnew in Rome

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BOMBSHELL: Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who considered himself a ‘friend and loyal servant’, was sacked by Pope Francis

BOMBSHELL: Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who considered himself a ‘friend and loyal servant’, was sacked by Pope Francis

BOMBSHELL: Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who considered himself a ‘friend and loyal servant’, was sacked by Pope Francis

It was a busy week at the Vatican. The sacking of a very senior cardinal, media reports of the embezzlement of Holy See funds (including both Peter's Pence and the Pope's own reserved account) to the tune of €454m and a blazing row with the Trump administration over China would all suggest that Pope Francis has plenty on his plate just now.

Today was meant to have been the day when world attention would be focused on the release of the Pope's third encyclical, namely Fratelli Tutti or 'Brothers and Sisters'.

In reality, the gravity of this most recent Vatican scandal may well upstage his encyclical, while it suggests once more that, seven years into his pontificate, something is still very rotten in the heart of Vatican City.

Assailed on one side by traditionalist Catholics and Curia die-hards who loathe his attempted reforms, and on the other side by progressives disappointed with the slow progress of that same reform drive, you could argue that Francis already has enough problems.

Yet does this latest scandal mean that the pontificate is totally stalled?

Supporters of Francis and that majority of Catholics sympathetic to his leadership argue vehemently that the Pope has not lost his way.

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Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

They point to today's encyclical, expected to outline a "common humanity" position in the brave new post-Covid world (whenever that will be), as an important indication of his determination to continue a magisterium that first began with his call for a "church of the poor, for the poor", three days after his March 2013 election.

Those same supporters argue the sacking last Thursday week of one of his closest collaborators, namely Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is proof not only that Francis is still totally in charge but also that the reform drive continues.

The thing is that 72-year-old Becciu is not just any old Curia Cardinal, head of an important Holy See dicastery. A Vatican diplomat since 1984, a former papal nuncio (ambassador) to both Angola and Cuba, chief of staff to both Pope Benedict and then to Francis (2013-2018), he has generally been seen as one of the most skilful and effective figures of the last decade in the Holy See, one often seen at the Pope's side.

More than that, many would see him as a representative of the Italian old guard in the Curia, a consummate power broker who knows how to navigate his way around the Apostolic Palace like very few.

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BACK IN ROME: Cardinal George Pell

BACK IN ROME: Cardinal George Pell

BACK IN ROME: Cardinal George Pell

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The sacking of a man who had appeared to serve Francis loyally and well prompted two immediate thoughts in the heart of Vatican City. Firstly, what had he done to merit such an almost unprecedented public "defenestration"? Secondly, if Becciu can get the chop like that, then no one is safe around here.

The bombshell took Becciu himself by surprise as he revealed in a highly unusual news conference: "Until two minutes past six last night, I thought I was a friend of the Holy Father, a loyal servant, and then he told me that he had lost faith in me because he had received notification from the [Vatican] magistrates that I was involved in embezzlement... "

Investigative weekly L'Espresso has claimed that "the Becciu method", namely the misuse of Vatican funds (including Peter's Pence) to finance property deals such as the 2013 purchase of a $160m dollar apartment block at 60 Sloane Avenue, London, has contributed to a €454m hole in Holy See finances.

An indignant Becciu has vigorously denied any wrongdoing, even suggesting that the Pope was "in difficulty".

He wondered if the Pope was not being "manipulated" or that, at the very least, "they are feeding him the wrong information".

Long-time Vatican expert Marco Politi commented in Rome daily Il Fatto Quotidiano that the Becciu sacking has come at a "difficult moment in the Francis pontificate". He argued that Francis risks looking like Hercules in his Fifth Labour, namely the cleaning out of the Augean stables. The more he cleans, the more dirt he discovers.

The Becciu affair will clearly rumble on. All the more so because the "information" being "fed" to Francis comes from a Vatican judicial investigation into the Sloane Avenue property deal, ordered by the Pope himself.

That investigation has already led to the resignation, in October last year, of the Vatican's chief of security, Domencio Giani, as well as the removal of several Vatican finance officials.

Clearly questions are now being asked about how, back in 2016, Becciu was able to stop an audit of all Vatican departments by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Was he trying to hide something?

At the very least, it looked as if he was trying to undermine financial reforms approved by the then head of the Secretariat of the Economy, controversial Australian Cardinal George Pell.

In the end, of course, Pell's reform crusade, strongly endorsed by Francis, collapsed when he had to return to Australia to face child abuse allegations.

Initially convicted and sentenced to six years in 2018, Pell was acquitted in April this year. By an ironic twist that might have been imagined by author Dan Brown, Pell actually returned to the Vatican last week to an as-yet-unclear future. Earlier he had congratulated the Pope for his sacking of Becciu, adding that he hoped "the cleaning of the stables" at the Holy See continues.

So then, does this latest sacking mean that Francis has finally called to heel a Curia "old guard" which for at least 15 years under the ailing John Paul II and the ineffective Benedict had played merry hell with Church governance? (Remember how the Pope's butler stole documents off Benedict's desk?)

Or does this latest scandal indicate that the "head office" of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church remains, if not corrupt, certainly ungovernable and driven by power plays, rivalries and bitter office politics.

Does this latest scandal also ask uncomfortable questions about some of the key appointments by Francis in the last seven years?

Becciu and Pell were both trusted aides, with the former nominated as Cardinal by Francis himself and the latter given the key role of reforming Holy See finances.

In the last week, too, Pell has again hinted that, to some extent, the abuse allegations against him had been orchestrated by figures in the Secretariat of State to get rid of a troublesome Australian.

Italian media reports yesterday would seem to corroborate this claim, suggesting Vatican investigators believe up to €1.1m was sent from Secretariat accounts to witnesses at the Pell abuse trial in Australia (ironically to strengthen the case against Pell).

Do their bitter differences start with the auditing of the Vatican books?

Since his election in 2013, the impact of Francis on both the Catholic and the non-Catholic, secular world has been and continues to be profound.

A Pope who talks about a church "of the poor, for the poor", a Pope who calls the unfettered pursuit of money "the dung of the devil" (Bolivia, 2015), a Pope who dedicates an encyclical (Laudato Si) to a call for global action in the face of climate change, global warming and environmental degradation is clearly something else.

Outside observers, however, perhaps failed to understand that a fresh, dynamic pastoral approach does not mean doctrinal change. Francis can say "who am I to judge?" about gays, but that does not mean he will impose any change to church teaching on homosexuality. (The practise therefore is still classed a sin, by the way.)

Francis apparently wants to start the in-house debate on issues such as the LGBT community, clerical celibacy, women priests, communion for the divorced and more besides.

However, he promotes only the debate, not any actual new teaching. The result is that his social teaching looks that of a Drop The Debt ecologist while his teaching on sexual mores and gender equality looks like that of someone who still believes the earth is flat.

Just ask suspended "dissident" Irish priest, Tony Flannery, recently called on by the CDF (ex-Holy Office) to toe the line and sign a document swearing that he accepts Church teaching on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and women priests (all causes Flannery has publicly promoted).

Not surprisingly, Flannery declined.

Incidentally, Vatican insiders point out that this CDF reprimand inevitably came with full papal approval.

By instinct, upbringing and geo-cultural location, Francis is a doctrinal conservative. By that same instinct, he is also a social revolutionary, committed to combating the injustices of poverty, lopsided wealth distribution and deprivation of every kind.

By that same stubborn instinct, he initially refused to wear a face mask even while he called on the faithful to respect all the Covid regulations.

Once more, Francis finds himself in the eye of a secular media storm. Two years ago, his failure to believe Chilean clerical sex abuse victims outraged many Chilean Catholics, eventually prompting Francis to issue a profound mea culpa as soon as he realised his catastrophic mistake.

Today, the Vatican's 2018 agreement with China sees him accused of having sold out those "underground" Chinese Catholics who have remained loyal to Rome (rather than to the state-run Patriotic Catholic Church) often despite persecution, torture and imprisonment under the communist regime.

Observers such as the Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen feel totally betrayed by Francis as the (still secret) agreement with China allows Chinese authorities a major role in the appointment of priests. That agreement, too, prompted a spat with the US last week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being refused an audience with Francis.

The Holy See cited the closeness of the US election but Vatican foreign minister, Paul Gallagher, was probably much closer to the truth when he told reporters on Wednesday that the Trump regime's willingness to exploit such a meeting for electoral reasons had ruled out the audience with the Pope. (Pompeo did meet Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Paolo Parolin.)

What seems clear, though, from the Pompeo visit and even more from the Becciu affair, is that Francis is still in charge. Equally clear, however, is that seven years on, those Vatican stables still have not been properly "mucked out".

Stand by for more "surprises".


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