ROME — Cardinals who elect a pope are sworn to secrecy, so there are some details about conclaves the world may never know, but after the choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in March 13 as Pope Francis, many participants were crystal-clear on one point.
They elected him in part because of his profile as a Vatican outsider, who would carry out an ambitious program of reform.
As his first move, Francis created a study commission which recommended a series of changes to the Vatican’s scandal-plagued finances, and which itself became engulfed in controversy when a former official and former member were both charged and convicted in a Vatican trial of leaking its secret documents to journalists.
As it turns out, that’s hardly the only complication that has beset Francis’s reform effort.
Based on the commission’s recommendations, Francis created three new financial bodies in the Vatican in 2014.
- A Council for the Economy, composed of both cardinals and laity, to set policy.
- A Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell, to implement those policies.
- An independent Auditor General, to provide a system of checks and balances.
An internal tug-of-war broke out to define the scope of the authority of those new entities, especially Pell’s department. Early on it seemed the secretariat would take over direct administration of most Vatican finances, but on July 9, Francis issued a decree giving most of those powers back to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (ASPSA.)
When the motu proprio was released, it was portrayed as a loss for Pell, as well as a rollback on the reform measures Francis himself had adopted two years ago. Defenders of the move describe it as an option for a clear distinction between administration and oversight, interlocking levels of authority, and a system not dependent upon any one person or department.
It remains to be seen how the newly calibrated mechanisms will work in practice, but what is clear is that at least two key figures whose profile has now been boosted by the pope carry some baggage in those roles.
The first is Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, who was appointed to APSA by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 and became its president in 2011. For a year, Calcagno was also part of a commission supervising the Institute for the Works of Religion (the so-called “Vatican bank”), but Francis, who had appointed him for a five-year term, then decided to remove him.
Known as the “Rambo prelate” for his wide collection of antique guns and his love for hunting, Calcagno is currently facing a criminal probe in his former diocese of Savona on suspicions of embezzlement.
Calcagno is being investigated for alleged misappropriations of funds at an institute to support the clergy in the Italian region of Liguria. According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Calcagno, 73, signed off on a series of real estate investments by the institute’s former president and his deputy that caused debts of “a few million Euro.”
Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, who wrote a book based on the leaked documents from the papal commission, sees Calcagno as a member of the Vatican’s “old guard,” close to Italian Cardinal Tarciso Bertone, former Secretary of State.
Further, Calcagno also has been accused of inaction regarding cases of clerical sexual abuse when he was bishop of Savona. Though no formal charges were ever filed, before the conclave there was a petition asking he be removed because of his mismanagement.
The second heavyweight under fire is Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, currently the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education and a former President of the Vatican’s Prefecture for the Economic Affairs, an office seemingly destined to be phased out in favor of the new secretariat.
The Italian news agency ANSA has reported that in 2015, Versaldi was caught on a police wire-tap telling a former president of Bambino Gesu that he wanted to keep Pope Francis in the dark about a $33 million transaction, intended to save another hospital.
Although Versaldi was investigated, the case was eventually dropped because the prosecutor decided that hiding things from the pope wasn’t a civil crime, and that using the funds from one hospital to save another does not rise to the level of embezzlement.
Going forward, it almost seems as if Francis anticipates the internal tensions over reform are hardly resolved.
The pontiff said he plans to appoint a mediator to resolve any conflicts that may arise, and although the name has not been revealed, it’s widely expected to be Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis.
Tapped by Benedict XVI to intervene with the Legionaries of Christ, De Paolis is also a president emeritus of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs, and has been seen as a hero of the “conservative” camp on issues related to the family, marriage and sexuality.
Although De Paolis has not faced any corruption charges, he was on a list of cardinals given by Nuzzi who live in spacious and well-appointed apartments, in contrast to Francis’s example of simplicity in choosing to reside in a two-room suite in the Vatican’s Santa Marta hotel.
At the time, De Paolis said that if Francis asked him to leave or to open his door to refugees he’d do it immediately, and in the meantime, “I won’t take lessons on morality” from a journalist charged with complicity in stealing secret documents.
Whatever his profile, the fact that De Paolis was chosen by Francis first to draft the July 9 motu proprio, and then as mediator for its implementation, speaks of the trust the pope seems to have in De Paolis.
Given the tensions and ambiguities generated so far along the path to a new era of transparency and accountability, it would seem De Paolis has his work cut out for him.