ROME – Granted, right now Pope Francis has bigger fish to fry. Among other things he’s trying to hold the nation of Italy together, appealing on Saturday for political unity at a time when regional governors from the political opposition are threatening to sabotage Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plan for gradually easing coronavirus restrictions by issuing their own ad hoc decrees.
Yet at some point when this is over, Francis will have to face the fact that his own house needs some work too.
The thought occurs in connection to a cryptic communique issued late Thursday by the Vatican Press Office, announcing that “individual measures for certain employees of the Holy See” had been taken after earlier ones adopted as part of an investigation into “financial investments and the real estate sector of the Secretariat of State” expired.
What Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not say out loud was that the five employees in question had been fired – and, no less, just hours before Francis would use his daily livestreamed Mass on the Italian Labor Day and the Church’s feast of St. Joseph the Worker to pray for workers’ rights.
“Let’s pray for all workers, so that no one is without work and all are justly paid,” the pope said.
The firings came directly from Francis, who obviously decided not to wait for the results of the ongoing investigation, despite the fact that at least one of the employees reportedly hasn’t even been interrogated yet. The termination notices the five received did not offer an official motive, presumably to avoid the possibility of appeal.
(I’m actually surprised no one yet has dubbed it the pope’s “Labor Day massacre,” which may be another indication of how distracted the world has been by the coronavirus pandemic.)
The five employees include three lay officials and two clerics, all of whom were flagged last October as suspects in a land deal in London in which the Vatican’s Secretariat of State used $225 million from the annual Peter’s Pence collection to buy part of a former Harrod’s warehouse in the Chelsea neighborhood slated for conversion into luxury apartments, and then requested an emergency loan from the Vatican Bank to purchase the remaining share after they soured on the Italian financier who originally brokered the deal.
To those five a sixth eventually was added, Italian Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, who had been in charge of the Secretariat of State’s financial investments until he was appointed last July to a position with the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court.
One of those original five was Italian layman Tomasso di Ruzza, former director of the Financial Information Authority, the Vatican’s anti-money laundering watchdog. Di Ruzza had been vigorously defended by his former boss, Swiss anti-money laundering expert René Brüelhart, who conducted his own internal investigation, and frustration over the case led to Brüelhart’s ouster last November.
Brüelhart had been the Vatican’s main conduit with Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, which is due soon to conduct another review of the Holy See. The Swiss lawyer has street cred in that world, having been the former vice-chair of the Egmont Group, a global network of financial intelligence units, and whose claim to fame was having restored Saddam Hussein’s private jet to the people of Iraq after having followed the late dictator’s money.
To date, no evidence has been produced to suggest that di Ruzza or the other four employees were guilty of wrongdoing. In any event, the deal for which they were being investigated had been approved by superiors in the Secretariat of State and, eventually, the pope himself.
(In the meantime, the Vatican announced in December that di Ruzza’s term had expired and, on April 15, Francis appointed Giuseppe Schlitzer to take his place, an Italian who’d previously worked at the Bank of Italy and the International Monetary Fund, and a member of the Christian Union of Businessmen and Managers.)
Veteran Italian Vatican journalist Gianfranca Soldati noted the coincidence that the firings came just after the three-year anniversary of the unexplained sacking of another Vatican employee, Eugene Hasler, who was for years a senior official in the Government of the Vatican City State. On March 28, 2017, he was fired personally by Pope Francis, and ever since he’s been asking for an investigation to be opened to show what he did wrong.
In a recent Facebook post, Hasler suggested that certain unnamed parties had falsified information to cause the pope to lose confidence in him, and then wrote:
“After three years some things are coming to light, others will need more time, but we need to know. Almost all these people, and I emphasize almost all, are still in command and, in part, hold even more prominent positions (for example, promotions). They are not just lay people …”
Hasler’s clear implication is that he was made a scapegoat for senior clerics in the system with something to hide, which is more or less the same thing that Libero Milone, the former Vatican auditor, suggested when he was arrested and forced to resign in 2017 — by the then-head of the Vatican gendarmes, Domenico Giani, who would later himself be forced out over the London scandal.
Many observers here can’t help wondering if the scapegoat dynamic is at work for at least some of the five people investigated over the London deal, such as Caterina Sansone, a lay woman who worked at the Secretariat of State and who apparently was flagged solely because she acted as a figurehead to facilitate the bureaucratic paperwork.
Vatican insiders know it’s a time-honored practice here for laity to take the fall when clerical superiors are in trouble, and that script has been widely applied with regard to the firings.
Two things seem clear, especially for a pope who has repeatedly committed himself to transparency as a cornerstone of reform.
First, the reasons for the firings need to be explained. If these five people are to be judged responsible for whatever went wrong on the London deal, it also needs to be explained how they could carry out such a maneuver without the approval of people much higher up the food chain.
Second, the Vatican recently announced that the Peter’s Pence collection, generally taken up around the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, has been moved to Oct. 4 because of the coronavirus. If parish priests around the world are supposed to stand in front of their congregations and appeal for support for Peter’s Pence, they too are owed an explanation of what happened.
In the end, perhaps there was nothing particularly amiss about the investment – which, according to reports, actually has tripled in value in the post-Brexit period. But if that’s so, then it’s all the more mysterious why five people apparently lost their jobs over it.
Francis was elected on a reform mandate, and from his own rhetoric it’s clear how much he abhors corruption. Right now, however, many observers would say the Vatican’s finances are more opaque, less transparent, and more in the hand of the old guard than when he started – and for that pandemic, unfortunately, the curve doesn’t appear to be flattening.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.