In the wake of two new books in Italy detailing charges of Vatican overspending and corruption, the pope’s top financial official has dismissed claims of lavish outlays in his own department, insisting that a half-million euro spent in the first six months were related to legitimate start-up costs.
A statement issued on behalf of Australian Cardinal George Pell, appointed by Pope Francis to run the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy in February 2014, claimed on Thursday that Pell’s department actually is one of the few in the Vatican that proposed spending less money in 2015 than in 2014.
“The recently released books appear to have included false and misleading claims about the management of expenditure by Cardinal Pell and the expenditure incurred by the Secretariat in 2014,” said a statement released by Pell’s office.
“For the avoidance of doubt about the commitment of Cardinal Pell to cost management and control,” the statement said, “the secretariat completed the year well below its 2014 budget and was one of the very few entities to propose a reduction in total expenditure in 2015.”
The statement came in response to the release this week of two new books by Italian journalists documenting financial embarrassments in the Vatican and internal tensions related to the reform Pope Francis has promised.
It opens with a scene in which an unnamed monsignor ticks off what he sees as a series of contradictions between the reform Francis has pledged and the internal reality of the Vatican today, including that “Pell, for himself and his friends, has spent a half-million euro in six months between salaries and tailor-made cloths.”
On Thursday, Pell’s staff fired back with a statement released both in Italian and English insisting that the roughly US $540,000 spent by the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014 was entirely justified.
That sum included around $317,000 in salaries and related costs, the statement asserted, as well as set-up expenses for furniture and computers.
Despite rumors of lavish outlays on liturgical vestments and first-class travel, the statement said, the reality is starkly different. For the nine months in which it was in existence in 2014, it said, the secretariat spent only $4,300 on airfare, “considerably less than many other entities,” and only $2,700 was spent on vestments and altar cloths to allow for celebration of daily Mass in a small chapel.
Pointedly, the secretariat attached a separate statement from last February, when charges of overspending by Pell on personal liturgical fineries first made the rounds in the Italian press, which insists that the Australian prelate does not even own a “cappa magna,” a voluminous cape often associated with celebration of the older Latin Mass.
The balance of the half-million euro laid out in 2014, according to Thursday’s statement, came in expenses for accommodations for consultants working on a project for the pontiff’s “G-9” council of cardinal advisors.
The statement acknowledges that the secretariat arranged an apartment for one staff member on a long-term assignment, arguing that doing so is actually cheaper than providing extended stays at “expensive hotels.”
Since his appointment as Francis’ top financial reformer, Pell has been a lightning rod inside the Vatican.
Admirers say that Pell’s sometimes abrasive style is necessary to cajole a reluctant system to change, while critics argue he sometimes pledges transparency and accountability but operates himself in secret and without consultation.
That ambivalence is reflected in the new books as well.
Nuzzi includes Pell among a “new guard” that shares Francis’ “policy for a Church without privileges and on the side of the poor and needy,” while Fittipaldi details charges against Pell related both to an over-concentration of power in Rome and also his handling of clerical sexual abuse scandals in Australia.