ROME – In the latest sign of deep internal divisions over reform of Vatican finances, former Auditor General Libero Milone claimed Saturday he was forced out in June over false accusations manufactured by an old guard, while two senior Vatican officials insisted they have “overwhelming” evidence Milone violated Vatican laws by illegitimately spying on people, including superiors and people inside his own office.
It was the first time Milone had spoken publicly after the Vatican announced he had stepped down on June 20, providing no explanation for why he was leaving just two years into his five-year mandate. That brief statement said his departure was by “common agreement,” but Milone said he had been “intimidated” and forced to resign.
“I wanted to do good for the Church, to reform it like I was asked, but they wouldn’t let me,” Milone said.
“I believe the pope is a great person, and he began with the best of intentions,” Milone said. “But I’m afraid he was blocked by the old guard that’s still entirely there, which felt threatened when it understood that I could tell the pope and Parolin what I’d seen with my own eyes in the accounts.”
The reference was to Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and in effect the pope’s top aide.
On Saturday, Milone spoke with a group of reporters from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the Wall Street Journal, the Reuters news agency, and the Italian TV news channel SkyTg24. Milone said he was breaking his silence because “I couldn’t allow any longer a small group of powers to [defame] my reputation for their shady games.”
Contacted by Reuters, Italian Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the top-ranking deputy in the Secretariat of State in his role of sostituto, or “substitute,” called Milone’s claims “false and unjustified.”
“He went against all the rules and was spying on the private lives of his superiors and staff, including me,” Becciu told Reuters. “If he had not agreed to resign, we would have prosecuted him.”
Domenico Giani, the Vatican’s police chief, told Reuters there had been “overwhelming evidence” against Milone, though neither he nor Becciu provided details of the charges.
On Sunday, the Vatican Press Office released a statement expressing “surprise and regret” over Milone’s comments, which, it said, “failed to uphold the agreement on confidentiality about the reasons for his resignation from office.
“According to the statutes, the role of the Auditor General is to examine budgets and accounts of the Holy See and related administrations,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the office headed by Dr. Milone exceeded its powers and illegally commissioned an external firm to conduct investigative activities on the private lives of officials of the Holy See.
“In addition to constituting a crime,” the statement said, “this inevitably compromised trust in Dr. Milone, who, confronted with his responsibility, freely agreed to resign.
“Finally,” the statement said, “one can be sure the investigations were carried out scrupulously, and with respect for the people involved.”
Milone told reporters he could not talk about the content of his auditing work for the Vatican, which he said is still covered by confidentiality agreements, but discussed the circumstances of his departure from the Vatican and his views on the overall state of the pope’s reform project.
A former Italian delegate for Deloitte, an international auditing and tax services firm, at various points over his career Milone had also worked for major global firms such as Fiat and Wind. When he took up the newly-created post of Auditor General in 2015, it was touted as the final piece of the puzzle to promote a new era of transparency and accountability in Vatican finances.
As Milone describes it, however, even though the Auditor General’s position was supposed to report directly to the pope, he was “blocked” from seeing Francis after April 2016, progressively isolated and impeded in his work, and eventually compelled to resign when confronted with accusations of misconduct and threatened with arrest if he didn’t quit immediately.
Specifically, Milone suggested he was being punished for having launched an investigation of a possible conflict of interest involving an Italian cardinal, whom he declined to name.
When he agreed to resign, Milone said, he was presented with a letter that had already been prepared and dated several months in advance, suggesting the effort to force him out had been underway for some time.
Milone also appeared to link his ouster with the exit of Cardinal George Pell, currently on a leave of absence while fighting charges of sexual abuse in his native Australia.
Milone told reporters that he had written Francis in July through a “secure channel,” saying he was the victim of a frame-job and that he’s “astonished” that it happened at the same time that Pell, who had been tapped by Francis in 2014 as his point man for financial reform, had exited the scene.
Milone implied it may not have been a coincidence that the abuse charges against Pell, which reportedly date back decades, had surfaced only within the last couple of years, at the same time his reform efforts were becoming increasingly controversial inside the Vatican.
Milone, who said he went to embrace Pell before his departure for Australia, told reporters he has had no response to that letter to Francis.
As Milone describes it, he was called into Becciu’s office on June 19 and informed that the pope had lost faith in him and wanted his resignation. When Milone asked why, he said he was given a series of explanations, “some of which seemed incredible.”
When he asked to see the pope, Milone said, he was told instead to go to the Gendarmeria, the Vatican’s main police force, where Giani interrogated him, later relocating to Milone’s office where Giani demanded access to documents. Speaking to SkyTG24, Milone said that during the interrogation, he felt as if he were in an old episode of “Starsky and Hutch.”
Eventually, Milone said, he was confronted with two receipts for payments to an outside contractor to check for surveillance devices in his office, which he said resulted in discovering unauthorized access to his computer and spyware planted on his secretary’s computer to copy files.
Milone said he told Giani that one of the two receipts was a fake, and denied any misappropriation of funds.
Becciu, however, told Reuters that Milone had hired the contractor to spy on others illicitly inside the Vatican.
Milone acknowledged that perhaps it’s true he had lost the confidence of the pope, but suggested the way in which Vatican officials engineered his departure was “strange.”
“The pope could have just called me and told me himself,” Milone said. “Instead, there was this whole staged scene that smacks of character assassination.”
Overall, Milone offered a dour assessment of the state of the reform project, suggesting early moves towards transparency and accountability are being rolled back.
“I see this all the time in the business world,” Milone told Italian television. “It’s what happens when you change objectives but you don’t change management … resistance to change is natural.”
However, Milone also said that if Francis asked him to return, he would do so, saying, “I don’t like not finishing something I started.”