ROME – In virtually any reform effort, there are usually two targets, one of which is obvious and relatively easy to tackle if there’s the will to do it, the other far more elusive and resistant to change.
The first of those targets is outright, blatant corruption, and the other is formed by cultural assumptions and patterns of behavior that aren’t generally perceived as criminal or even immoral.
It would seem that Pope Francis’s financial reform of the Vatican has reached that second stage, and it’s an open question whether it will succeed and how many other contretemps may erupt along the way.
The latest case in point is Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, formerly a top official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and currently the pope’s ambassador in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This week, Balestrero’s lawyers negotiated a plea-bargain deal with prosecutors in the Italian city of Genoa to close a money-laundering case involving, of all things, the illegal importation of Argentinian beef into the European Union.
As part of that plea bargain, roughly $8.5 million that was originally frozen by investigators has been forfeited, becoming the property of the state. The arrangement has been negotiated among prosecutors and lawyers representing the two Balestrero brothers and still has to be approved by a judge, but most observers here expect it to stick.
To be clear, the charge was against Balestrero and his father, Gerolamo, along with his brother Guido, not against the Vatican. So far as anyone can tell, the Vatican doesn’t figure in the story except to the extent that Balestrero is a former Vatican official and currently a papal envoy. Yet by virtue of who Balestrero is, the situation nevertheless illustrates the challenges facing Francis.
(As a footnote, Balestrero likes to refer to himself as “half American” because his mother, Donatella Pertusio, grew up in the States, and he speaks almost flawless English.)
In essence, the charge is that during the 1990s, Gerolamo Balestrero, who works in export/import, circumvented EU limits on the importation of foodstuffs from abroad by arranging for Argentinian beef to be shipped to Spain and, from there, sold in Italy and elsewhere. Supposedly the arrangement netted millions of Euro in profit, which, allegedly, was recycled and laundered in part by passing through accounts belonging to the Archbishop. The investigation began when several million Euro moved from one of those accounts to his brother Guido in 2015.
Balestrero, however, insists that he did nothing wrong. He’s told reporters that, at one point, his father was worried about his health and so wanted to distribute the inheritance planned for the two brothers in advance. The money moved to his account, Ballestrero said, and then he moved his brother’s share, roughly $4.8 million, to his account.
If he’d thought he was doing anything illegal, the Archbishop said, he certainly wouldn’t have arranged the transfer in his own name and with a notarized public receipt.
If he’s innocent, why did he accept the plea bargain, including abandoning millions in family money?
“The choice is due to several factors,” Balestrero said in a statement to media organizations. “Among them, maybe the most important is to restore serenity to the family of my brother Guido and to my ecclesiastical situation. I wanted to save time and energy for my spiritual mission, and, as a priest, I feel an obligation to devote my mind and my will to my mission and not to money.”
Interestingly enough, once upon a time Balestrero was viewed as one of the white hats in the press for reform. He headed the team appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to oversee the Vatican’s initial cooperation with Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering unit, defending the pontiff’s decision to subject the Vatican to such external review against fellow insiders who saw it as a betrayal of the Vatican’s sovereignty and autonomy.
Here’s how the Balestrero illustrates the cultural dimension of financial reform.
In legendarily close-knit Italian families, one simply doesn’t ask too many questions about where money comes from or how it was obtained. There’s a benefit of the doubt, especially regarding one’s parents and siblings, as well as a strong sense of family solidarity.
Almost no one here experiences that cultural bias in favor of loyalty to one’s family as a vice; on the contrary, it’s generally considered a defining national virtue.
One could make an analogy with the misconduct accusations which recently cost Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu his job as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and his privileges as a cardinal. There too, the alleged wrongdoing involved financial entanglements with family members.
When Pope Francis summoned Becciu to a tense meeting in late September in which his removal was announced, the pontiff ticked off several motives for the decision, including charges that Becciu had diverted roughly $230,000 as payments for fixtures for the Vatican embassy in Cuba, where he served as ambassador between 2009 and 2011, to a company owned by one of his brothers. He was also accused of donating Vatican funds to a charity in his native Sardinia run by another relative.
In a hastily organized news conference the next day, Becciu was adamant that his conscience is clear.
“Excuse me, but I didn’t know anyone else,” he said, referring to his time in Cuba and need for remodeling at the embassy. “I don’t see a crime.”
Whether the actions by Balastrero or Becciu were crimes under either Vatican or Italian law may be debatable, but even if they are, it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t meet the traditional Catholic standard for subjective sin, which is knowing intent to do wrong. Both men may have felt they were doing no more than honoring obligations to family, which everything in their culture would have told them is a primordial duty.
In sum, Pope Francis isn’t just trying to enact new laws and clamp down on crime. He’s trying to rewire an entire culture, at least here in Italy (where so many of the Vatican’s movers and shakers come from), to see transparency and accountability as virtues that apply even where family and friends are involved. However obvious that point may seem, the pontiff is swimming against centuries of cultural formation to try to make it stick.
The next time you feel frustrated about the slow pace of reform, that may be something to consider. Culture is king, and like monarchies everywhere, it’s genetically reluctant to embrace change.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.