Perceptions of setbacks and power struggles, the recent exits of two key financial officials, and a Vatican trial for misappropriation of funds in which a cardinal at the heart of the affair has not been charged or even investigated, all have prompted some observers to start writing obituaries for the pontiff’s plans for a sweeping reform of Vatican finances.
One of Italy’s most respected political journalists didn’t go quite that far on Saturday, but writing in Corriere della Sera, considered the country’s paper of record, Massimo Franco declared that the “shock therapy” Francis imposed on Vatican finances has yielded “thin results,” and that things are drifting back toward what Vatican insiders call “normality,” meaning the situation prior to the initial reforms three years ago.
In particular, Franco said that the Secretary of State, the Vatican’s powerful central coordinating department, is reacquiring its traditional supremacy with regard to financial management. Curbing that domination originally was considered among the pillars of Francis’s reforms.
“One of the strongest mandates that Jorge Mario Bergoglio received from the conclave was precisely that of a deep overhaul of a Roman reality seen with profound distrust, if for no other reason than for having caused the resignation of Benedict XVI,” Franco wrote, referring to the papal election of March 2013.
“The results of this operation,” he said, “are thin.”
The pope made a “generous effort” to revolutionize the system, Franco wrote, but that system now “risks appearing irreformable, even with a shock therapy like that of Francis.”
Franco notes that within the last 40 days, two figures named by Francis to key positions in the financial reform have been taken off the board.
On June 20, a brief Vatican statement announced that Libero Milone, an Italian financier and expert in accounting who had been hired in 2015 to become the Vatican’s first-ever independent auditor general, had stepped down just two years into a five-year term. No explanation was given for his departure.
Nine days later, police in the Australian state of Victoria announced they had filed charges against Cardinal George Pell, whom Francis had named the first-ever Prefect of his new Secretariat for the Economy in February 2014, with “historical sexual offenses.”
The same day, the Vatican announced Pope Francis had granted Pell a leave of absence to return to Australia to fight the charges. Pell made first appearance July 26, with the next set for Oct. 7. Assuming the case goes to trial, legal experts in Australia believe it could be two years or more before it’s resolved, meaning Pell would not be returning to Rome to resume his duties for at least that long, if at all.
In his Saturday essay, Franco predicted that a third figure will soon join the roster of the departed: Frenchman Jean-Baptise de Franssu, president of the Institute for the Works of Religion (the so-called “Vatican bank”), named to the post in July 2014.
According to Franco, Vatican insiders are saying that Franssu is “exhausted” and has felt a “growing coldness” toward him by figures close to the pope, and is now coming to Rome from France only a couple of days out of the week. Those insiders, Franco wrote, believe that Franssu could be gone by the end of the summer, and, in any event, by the end of the year.
“He’s been a target in the curia for a while for those who tend to see him as an inconvenience,” Franco wrote, “the third side of a ‘magic triangle’ also including Milone and Pell.”
Taking these developments together, Franco quoted an unnamed cardinal saying, “It’s the end of the three years of the Motu Proprio,” referring to a 2014 legal document from Francis establishing the Vatican’s new system of oversight and accountability and entrusting most of the power over it to Pell.
Pell’s approach, according to Franco, was to try to “graft a series of controls entrusted to external consultants and firms onto the old structures,” which inevitably created a conflict between the “new arrivals and the pre-existing lay and ecclesiastical nomenklatura.”
Today, as Franco sees it, that nomenklatura hasn’t quite succeeded in rolling back the clock entirely, but it has blocked Pell and the brand of reform he was perceived to represent – part of a “strong Vatican current that’s worked these last few years for continuity.
“Some call it a return to reason, others a restoration,” he wrote. In reality, he said, “the new system was broken before it could establish itself,” while the old one “is at most surviving, without being able to substitute anything for it – but in some ways, it’s finished too.”
According to Franco, advocates of a return to “normality” now foresee a serious trimming-down for Pell’s department.
“Five or six people would be enough, not the elephantine and over-paid structure that they tried to put in place,” one source said, described by Franco as a “prelate close to the pope.”
Finally, Franco cited a recent piece of evidence that the Secretariat of State is winning the internal battle over control. Recently Monsignor Luigi Mistò, an Italian who’s temporarily heading the Secretariat for the Economy, gave an interview to Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
“The economic reform … underway with the support of the Secretariat of State,” Mistò said, “has already obtained important results.”
Franco’s implication is that, to say the least, it’s not the language Pell would have used.
Franco does not make any reference to one other recent development that had driven question marks: The recent indictments of two former lay officials of Rome’s papally-sponsored Bambino Gesù, a pediatric hospital, for misuse of funds related to almost $500,000 spent to remodel the Vatican apartment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
Although the alleged misconduct dates to 2013, and while Bertone has denied any wrongdoing vigorously, the trial has nevertheless raised doubts about the state of reform. Among them are why Vatican investigators apparently never even considered Bertone a subject of the probe, and how it was possible for a now-bankrupt Italian construction company owned by a Bertone friend to be paid twice by different Vatican departments for the same work.