Lessons from Pope Francis’ financial reform efforts

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Becciu at the Vatican Dec. 16, 2019. Cardinal Becciu, forced to resign in September amid a financial scandal, said Pope Francis celebrated Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper with him in his private chapel April 1, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Cleaning up the Vatican’s finances has been a long, complex and personally costly process for Pope Francis. Despite many obstacles, he has persevered, and that determination is starting to pay off.

On July 3, the Vatican announced it would prosecute 10 individuals, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu, for alleged financial crimes.

This is an unprecedented moment and marks a potentially decisive chapter in Francis’ reform efforts. Never before has a cardinal been prosecuted in this way for financial impropriety — a sign that accountability is being sought regardless of clerical rank.

In the past, someone in his position might have expected to be shielded from scrutiny. The Sardinian prelate held the position of “sostituto” at the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, the equivalent of a papal chief of staff, from 2011 to 2018, and was one of Francis’ closest aides.

He is now facing charges including embezzlement and abuse of office, with the pope personally approving the decision by prosecutors to investigate and charge the cardinal. Cardinal Becciu, who strongly denies any wrongdoing, will face trial in the Vatican alongside nine others who are accused of money-laundering, fraud, extortion and abuse of office.

The trial comes after a two-year investigation into the Secretariat of State’s €350 million investment in an expensive property in London’s Chelsea district. The deal, which involved an assortment of middlemen and companies, was disastrous and has reportedly lost the Vatican millions.

A trial, due to start on July 27, will take place in a specially designed courtroom in the Vatican museums, as the other court in the Vatican City State is too small to fit the defendants and their lawyers.

Throughout his eight-year pontificate, Francis has published a series of laws and regulations aimed at tackling corruption and conflicts of interest in the Vatican. He has removed the legal privileges given to bishops and cardinals who work in the Vatican to ensure they are judged by the same court that tries normal criminal cases, rather than by an elite panel of fellow prelates.

He has set a cap of €40 for gifts that Vatican employees can receive, and issued new regulations on the awarding of outside public contracts to ensure transparency and crack down on potential corruption. Francis has also developed and bolstered the regulatory framework that oversees the Holy See’s financial transactions.

Despite this, a persistent criticism of the Vatican’s financial management has been a lack of prosecutions for wrongdoing, particularly those in high levels of office. In other words: it’s fine to have laws and regulations to prevent malpractice, but if they are not enforced, what do they mean?

This is why the decision to prosecute over the London property deal is so significant; it shows the Holy See is walking the walk on financial accountability. Some may wonder why financial scandals and problems continue to plague the Vatican, and if things have really changed during this pontificate.

Church sources have often told me that a root cause of the difficulties is an outdated system in which multi-million-dollar investments are overseen or managed by prelates who have not been financially trained. Too often they are not fully aware of their responsibilities when it comes to financial oversight.

When it came to the London property, the leadership of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State signed off on the deal that became the subject of an investigation. Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin says the secretariat “are considered victims” in the case, with Vatican prosecutors ruling that the cardinal and his deputy (Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the sostituto), had not been “effectively informed” of the details of the deals nor made aware of the legal ramifications. This supports the point about the need for financial professionals to oversee church investments.

As a result of the London scandal, the pope ordered that the management of the Secretariat of State’s resources be transferred to APSA (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See), which has oversight of a majority of the Holy See’s assets. The number two official in that department is Fabio Gasperini, an accountant and auditor with 25 years of experience working in financial services. He is the first non-ordained person to hold that position.

What Pope Francis has learned with his financial reforms is that effective systems, trained professionals and a robust application of the law is the way to ensure the prudent management of church funds. But Francis also believes that no one is beyond God’s mercy, and on Holy Thursday the pope made the surprise decision to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the private chapel of Cardinal Becciu’s Vatican apartment. Francis’ pastoral gesture was also a reminder of the law of reconciliation: By forgiving, we are forgiven, and it is the merciful who shall obtain mercy. 



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