Nov 5, 2015

'Vatileaks' scandal a 'battle between good and evil' in the Catholic church

Stephanie Kirchgaessner
The Guardian
November 4, 2015

 Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi  Gianluigi Nuzzi: ‘The pope’s men are lined up on one side, while on the other are his enemies, the defenders of the status quo.’ Photograph: Reuters
Gianluigi Nuzzi
Two new books offer a fascinating glimpse into the Vatican’s murky finances and opposition to Pope Francis’s reform efforts

Gianluigi Nuzzi: ‘The pope’s men are lined up on one side, while on the other are his enemies, the defenders of the status quo.’

Chaos, greed and financial mismanagement. The Vatican has been rocked by yet another scandal, and it is one that paints the bureaucracy at the heart of the Catholic church as an institution dead-set against Pope Francis’s reform efforts – in large part because some officials have been free to use the church’s coffers as their own personal piggybank.

From stories of cardinals living in luxury apartments and the questionable use of charitable funds, to a complete lack of transparency into how tens of millions of euros are spent within important Vatican offices, two books published this week have sought to shine a light on the church’s murky finances.

Although the accounts are based on confidential documents – allegedly leaked by two Vatican insiders both since arrested – the authors of the two books, journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, insist they are trying to help the pope in his mission to clean up the church. The Vatican has so far refused to comment on the accuracy of the allegations and said the books were the “fruits of a grave betrayal of the trust given by the pope”.

Vatican finances

Early in his papacy, in 2013, Pope Francis was offered a shocking assessment of Vatican finances. A never-before-seen letter to the pope by auditors who were concerned about the management of the Vatican’s vast financial assets described “a complete lack of transparency in the book-keeping ... [that] makes it impossible to provide a clear estimate of the actual financial status of the Vatican”. The letter added: “We only know that the data examined shows a truly downward trend and we strongly suspect that the Vatican as a whole has a serious structural deficit.”

After sharing the assessment with a meeting of cardinals, the pope issued a 16-minute indictment that was described as harsher than any that had been expressed by a pontiff to an assembled group of cardinals. In the “scathing, even humiliating” dressing-down, the pope told the cardinals present that he would not tolerate improper financial payments. “An official told me, ‘But they come with a bill and we have to pay ...’. No, we don’t pay. If something is done without a tender, without authorisation, it doesn’t get paid,” the pope said, according to a transcript in Nuzzi’s book of a secret recording of the meeting.


One of the primary tasks of a commission created by Francis to examine the expenses and financial management of the Curia – the Vatican bureaucracy – was to closely examine the office that investigates whether people ought to be made saints. Saint-making is an expensive business. According to Nuzzi, there are about 2,500 cases pending before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but when the office was given just a few days to hand over documents to the pope’s new commission, the sainthood office came up empty-handed, saying it was not in possession of such documents even though the office spent “tens of millions of euros” on its activities. The average cost paid by the Vatican to research a saint was €500,000. On behalf of the pope, the committee acted swiftly and the sainthood offices’ accounts – allegedly worth €40m – were temporarily frozen.

Home renovations

Pope Francis may have sought to offer up an austere, no-frills vision of the church on his recent trip to the US, when he rode around in a small Fiat, but Nuzzi’s book describes how his cardinals continue to live in luxurious homes in the heart of Rome. Among those singled out is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who, like most high-ranking officials, lives in a “princely dwelling” with a missionary nun who serves as an assistant and housekeeper.

Cardinals do not pay rent, only utilities, and once they retire are charged a monthly rental fee of €7 to €10 per sq metre. According to Fittipaldi, author of Avarice, Bertone once redirected tens of millions of euros from a foundation meant to support the Bambino Gesu paediatric hospital in Rome and used the funds to renovate his apartment instead. Bertone insisted in the book that he repaid the money. The cardinal also is no fan of Rome’s traffic, preferring instead to travel by helicopter. He ran up a tab of nearly €24,000 to pay for a helicopter ride in 2012.

But the most jaw-dropping anecdote to emerge from Nuzzi’s book – as far as home renovations go – involves the alleged case of Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, a top official in the Vatican City state administration, who in 2012 was keen to extend his living quarters. When Sciacca noticed his elderly neighbour was taken ill and had gone into hospital, he allegedly knocked down a wall separating the two flats, and even had some of the elderly priest’s belongings moved into boxes. When the priest returned, he realised something about his flat had changed, but did not raise any qualms. He died shortly afterwards and Sciacca was demoted by Francis.

Peter’s Pence

Among the most explosive allegations contained in the Nuzzi book is one surrounding Peter’s Pence, a charity to which Catholics donate that the Vatican uses at its own discretion “for the many different needs of the Universal Church and for the relief of those most in need”. According to Nuzzi, the charity is a “black hole”, with total secrecy surrounding how the money is spent and by whom. But a confidential document obtained by Nuzzi found that about 58% of Peter’s Pence’s money is devoted to “maintenance of the Curia”. Citing confidential sources, Nuzzi alleged that in 2012 a “line-by-line” analysis found that even more – about 67% – was spent on the Vatican bureaucracy. “For every euro that finds its way to the Holy Father, barely 20 cents end up in actual projects to help the poor,” Nuzzi wrote.

What does this mean for Pope Francis?

Unlike the previous “Vatileaks” scandal that is believed to have led to the retirement of Pope Benedict, the allegations consuming the Vatican now are not likely to severely weaken Pope Francis. To be sure, the Argentinian pope is seen to be fighting on many fronts within the Vatican – both on ideological issues and in his attempt to reform what often appears to be an immovable bureaucracy. But, as Austen Ivereigh, who has written a biography of Francis notes, the current scandal seems only to highlight the difficult task the pope faces.

“This shows how necessary reform is. It has exposed a legacy of a certain kind of culture within the Vatican, of very self-enclosed groups of bureaucrats who seek to jealousy protect their power and resist attempts to make them accountable,” Ivereigh says.

Nuzzi has described what is happening within the Vatican as a “true battle between good and evil”.

“The pope’s men are lined up on one side, while on the other are his enemies, the defenders of the status quo, adverse to any and all change,” he wrote.

If nothing else, the books and the arrests have offered a fascinating glimpse at what the fight within the Vatican, an ancient institution enshrouded in mystery, is really about, and it is not just ideological. If the two new books are to be believed, hundreds of millions of euros are also at stake.

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