Despite speculation that Cardinal George Pell might step down shortly after his 75th birthday on June 8, Pell’s office said Thursday that Pope Francis has confirmed the Australian prelate as the Vatican’s top financial official until at least 2019.
The news came in a statement from Pell’s office in Rome, after a Thursday visit by Pope Francis to the offices of the Secretariat for the Economy, the body created by the pope in 2014 to be the Vatican’s new lead agency for financial administration.
Saying the pontiff had spent an hour in “a friendly and lively discussion” with the staff of the secretariat, the statement indicated that Pell’s status also had been addressed during the session.
“Cardinal Pell will also be continuing with his current role for the full five-year term,” it said.
Pell was appointed to his present role by Francis in February 2014, thus a five-year term would last until February 2019.
The statement from Pell’s office suggested Pope Francis had offered a broad thumbs-up for their reform efforts.
“The Holy Father said he fully supported their work and re-emphasized the ongoing need for transparency in continuing with their reforms,” it said. “He also repeated the need for outside or external professional inclusion and assistance.”
On Sunday, veteran Vatican writer Franca Giansoldati of the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero interpreted the pope’s message to mean, “Changes in the direction of transparency in accounts and balances will go ahead, without stumbles and without gray zones.”
Although 75 is the age at which Catholic bishops are required to submit their resignations, heads of Vatican departments routinely serve well beyond that date.
At the moment, Italian Cardinals Angelo Amato at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Francesco Coccopalmerio at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Antonio Maria Vegliò at the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, are all over 75, and Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella at the Congregation for Clergy will turn 75 in August.
Yet some Vatican-watchers wondered if Pope Francis would use the occasion of Pell’s 75th birthday to justify a change, given that the Australian prelate has found himself facing controversy both for his role in the Vatican’s financial reform and also his record on child sexual abuse cases earlier in his career as a priest and bishop in Australia.
In early March, Pell testified before an Australian Royal Commission investigating institutional responses to child abuse, which was examining complaints that Pell had failed to act on situations of abuse when he was a priest in the city of Ballarat, and later as the Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell vigorously disputed those charges.
At the conclusion of that testimony, Pell met with a group of abuse survivors from Ballarat who had flown to Rome and pledged his support for reform efforts.
More recently, Pell has found himself in an intra-Vatican wrangle over a contract co-signed by him with the global firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers for an external audit of the Vatican’s finances.
On April 12, Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number two official in the Secretariat of State sent a letter to all Vatican departments effectively suspending that audit. Though neither that letter nor subsequent Vatican statements have explained what concerns led to the decision, on background officials have said they have to do with the scope of the contract and also what impact it might have on the Vatican’s own newly created office of Auditor General.
The April 28 statement from Pell’s office appeared to suggest a degree of skepticism about the legitimacy of the objections, saying “it is also interesting to note so-called ‘concerns’ about the PwC audit and contract were only raised when auditors began asking for certain financial information, and were finding it difficult to get answers.”
When the news agency “Vatican Insider” on Friday suggested that language was a rebuttal to an earlier statement from the Vatican Press Office defending the suspension of the audit, a spokesman for Pell said their press release “included observations about the PwC audit that were already in the public domain. Cardinal Pell is not quoted, and did not make specific comments.”
Most observers believe that in order to get an audit back on track, a three-way exchange now needs to take place among:
- Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy
- The Council for the Economy led by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, which was created by Francis to be the policy-setting body on Vatican finances
- The Secretariat of State under Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who increasingly seems to be the pontiff’s most trusted aide
What now seems clear is that Pell will continue to be at the center of those conversations, and others, well beyond his 75th birthday in June.