NEW YORK — Following crackdowns from the U.S. government on the Saudi Arabia, Mauritius, and Indian missions to the United Nations for labor law violations six years ago, officials at the Holy See’s U.N. mission were warned they would be next.

In 2013, senior level staff members, acting on the advice of the U.N.’s host country committee, confronted then-papal ambassador to the U.N., Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, advising him that in order to avoid a similar scandal, the mission should review both the visa status and wage allocations for its employees, which they believed had been out of compliance for some time.

The warning went unheeded, and when employees sought Vatican intervention, as well as raising concerns about working conditions under the archbishop, they allege that he became vindictive and forced the departure of core collaborators for the Holy See’s U.N. outpost.

At a time when Pope Francis has vowed to initiate a new era of responsibility, accountability, and transparency in the Church, one area that remains unaddressed is the plight of whistleblowers that call out leaders for abuse of power — a challenge particularly heightened for individuals who are dependent on the institution they are seeking to hold to account, particularly if they are dependent on the institution for their salary, healthcare, and shelter.

In interviews with Crux, former employees of the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations point to their experience with Chullikatt — whose truncated tenure is recalled, according to them, as a “horror story,” — as exhibit “A” of the perils of calling into question high-ranking Church officials.

Chullikatt did not respond to Crux’s request to comment.

Accusations of Labor Violations and Unjust Wages

Chullikatt, an Indian-born prelate who entered the Vatican’s diplomatic corps in the late eighties, served as the pope’s ambassador to Iraq and Jordan before being assigned to the United Nations in 2010.

While the Church’s work at the United Nations is focused on peace-building, behind the scenes, former staff members described him as a power-hungry executive who launched an all-out war on those who dared to question his authority.

“He believed his episcopal ordination made him omnipotent,” said one former senior level staff member.

Terrence McKeegan, who began as a legal advisor to the mission in August 2013, told Crux that within the first two months on the job, he began to notice — and document — potential “serious moral and financial corruption” related to the underpayment of staff, visa designations for certain employees, reporting of salaries to U.S. visa authorities, and related issues concerning U.S. labor laws.

Nor was the problem confined to the non-diplomatic staff, as McKeegan and at least two other members of the professional staff had their salaries unilaterally cut by Chullikatt by 40 to 60 percent from their contractual agreements.

Questions about the employment and compensation status of workers who were under a diplomatic visa date to a previous nuncio, Italian Archbishop Renato Martino, and were raised with Chullikatt by a senior level staff member who told Crux that the nuncio dismissed the concerns and said he would revisit them in the new year.

Both McKeegan and the senior staffer, who spoke with Crux under the condition of anonymity, said the conditions in which these individuals — who served as cleaners, cooks, and drivers to Chullikatt — were forced to work featured long hours and rare compensation for their efforts, implying violations of both legal standards and simple human decency.

“In all the meals we ever had — and I had meals next to the nuncio almost daily — never once did he say, ‘Thank you,’” said the former senior staffer. “He treated these staff members as if they were mess on his shoe.”

Another priest who worked at the mission told Crux that “one man would drive the nuncio at times to Washington, D.C. for a brief meeting and then back again to New York City in the same day, only to have to don a different uniform on arrival and wait at tables all evening until midnight.”

“At times, their treatment by the nuncio, or the manner in which he spoke to them, left them shaking or in tears,” he continued.

When the senior staffer raised the question of the compensation, warning that the mission was in violation of labor laws, Chullikatt dismissed the concerns, ordering him “not to bring this to my attention again.”

According to the sources who spoke to Crux, the legal status of workers who relied on their diplomatic visas to remain in the country and not be separated from their American-born children kept these individuals from raising concerns.

“It was the closest thing I have seen in my lifetime to slavery,” said another former priest who worked for the mission.

A Plea for Vatican Intervention

Sources said that Archbishop, now Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, who served as the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States during visits to the United Nations General Assembly in both 2012 and 2013, was notified of the concerns about Chullikatt.

Mamberti did not reply to Crux’s request for comment. However, three former staff members said that Mamberti acknowledged he was aware of conditions at the mission.

“I know what normal is,” said the former senior staffer who had served as a canon lawyer with extensive diocesan work. “This place is not normal,” he told Mamberti. “Something has to be done quickly.”

In the fall of 2013, McKeegan wrote a letter to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, with detailed allegations of the moral and financial corruption that highlighted labor law violations and the underpayment of at least nine mission staff.

In January 2014, Chullikatt was summoned to Rome. The following month, a staff member at the Secretary of State in Rome confirmed to McKeegan that Mamberti had reviewed the allegations in the letter and promised a reply from Parolin.

While the mission’s staffers believed the summons would lead to Chullikatt’s dismissal, two months later he returned to New York where, according to one senior staffer, “he was worse than before.”

These individuals believe that in Rome, Chullikatt was able to convince his friends within the diplomatic corps to dismiss the complaints while exacting punitive measures on staff members whom he believed had called into question his authority and attempted to alert his superiors.

While the Vatican removed Chullikatt as nuncio in July 2014, despite repeated promises from officials of the Secretary of State through back channels that they would protect mission employees, Chullikatt dismissed many of the core collaborators of the mission before his own departure.

“Rome left everyone at the mission hung out to dry,” said McKeegan. “They feigned concern for mission staff but did nothing while Archbishop Chullikatt systematically removed them from their positions.”

According to McKeegan, the Vatican follows a familiar pattern with corrupt prelates.

“They quietly remove the bishop once the risk of exposure is extreme, give them a soft landing while a supposed investigation takes place (the results of which are never made public), then reinstate them in a top position far away from the original post, where the process likely repeats itself.  These resemble the actions of a criminal syndicate.”

Accountability and Transparency

Upon his removal, Archbishop Bernardito Auza succeeded him, and Chullikatt quietly went on to Harvard Divinity School for a semester fellowship.

Auza declined Crux’s request for comment. However, at least two of the former staffers said that they had direct knowledge that upon his arrival in New York, Auza immediately took efforts to bring the mission into full legal compliance and improve the office culture for its employees.

One current staff member, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the mission, spoke to Crux on background and said compensation to staff is a package that includes family health care, pension, an apartment, full utilities, a full month’s paid vacation, an extra month’s salary, and an annual bonus.

He said that during Chullikatt’s time, chauffers and custodial staff members — who were on G-3 diplomatic visas as employees of the mission — were paid hourly wages ranging from $10 to $11.48. With an extra month’s salary averaged in, however, he said they were paid the equivalent of $10.77 to $12.36, at a time when minimum wage in New York was $10.20.

Allegations of labor law violations and unjust wages, he said, seem to be based on a misunderstanding of the visa status non-diplomatic staff have, as if they were personal employees of the nuncio rather than staff members of the mission. Based on their particular designation, he said, these individuals were not required to have a minimum salary, even though their average hourly salary and compensation package enabled them to have a higher living standard than what is required by New York Law.

Even so, soon after Auza’s arrival to the mission, non-diplomatic staff of the mission received raises of $300 a month, along with two subsequent raises.

Reflecting on the situation, one former senior staff member — who at one point used his own vacation time to fly to Rome in a failed effort to speak with senior officials at the Secretary of State —said his experience with Chullikatt led him to believe that “within the Church, there’s no human resources system to help people who need to raise concerns.”

“There needs to be an entire rethinking of the way the Roman Curia operates,” he told Crux.

It remains to be seen if a reform introduced by Pope Francis in late 2017, creating a new third section within the Secretariat of State dedicated to papal diplomatic missions, will address situations such as the concerns raised under Chullikatt. A Vatican statement at the time said the new department would be responsible for “matters relating to the staff who work in the diplomatic service of the Holy See or who prepare to do so – such as, for example, selection, initial and continuing formation, conditions of life and service, promotions, permits, etc.”

Another former staff member of the UN mission raised concerns over the pontifical oath of secrecy that staff members are required to take, as they believe it is often used as a shield to hide corruption. The oath was cited by several other mission employees who ultimately declined to comment for this article, including individuals whose disagreements with Chullikatt were widely known.

“Most of my colleagues were priests or religious, who were and still are, utterly dependent on the Church for their very support and welfare,” McKeegan said.

For McKeegan, “I knew that in signing my name to the letter sent to the Secretary of State, that I was not only likely to lose my position with the Holy See, but also committing career suicide.”

At the time of his departure, Chullikatt had served in his post for four years, whereas his two most recent predecessors had served terms of 16 and 8 years respectively.

No report on any findings against the nuncio has ever been communicated publicly or to any of the former staff of the mission who made oral or written allegations against him. In April 2016, Chullikatt was named as the new apostolic nuncio to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and two months later, to Kyrgyzstan — roles he continues to serve in to this day.