ROME – Around nine p.m. on June 19, 2017, the man who once held one of the most promising new positions in Vatican history says he left its walls feeling “dazed.” He says he had been presented with charges of espionage and embezzlement, and that he was compelled to sign a resignation letter on the spot.
“It was such a surprise to me, such a shock… I couldn’t believe they were telling me what they were telling me,” said Libero Milone, the first — and, so far, only — auditor general of the Vatican’s finances, one year later sitting in the chilled room of his lawyer’s office in Rome for an interview with Crux.
“I simply did my job properly,” he added with a smile.
He spoke not long after Vatican prosecutors informed Milone’s lawyers that a criminal investigation against him has been closed and no charges will be filed, despite highly public claims last year from senior Vatican officials that Milone had deployed illicit wiretaps during his brief period on the job, as well as hints that he may have been guilty of financial irregularities himself.
Milone was named to the post in 2015, at the peak of Pope Francis’s early financial reform efforts. His experience at the international auditing and tax services firm Deloitte seemed to make him the perfect man for the job, but even more, he says, the Vatican was looking for someone with tact, capable of reconciling modern financial techniques within a millennia-old and relationship-based institution.
Barely two years in, Milone – whose mandate gave him the power to summon financial statements from all Vatican departments – left his position in disgrace, although a face-saving Vatican press release claimed they were parting on “amicable terms.”
After a three-month silence, Milone spoke to the press later in 2017. He claimed he had been intimidated by the gendarmerie, the Vatican’s police force, and forced to accept resignation under the threat of being sent to jail.
At the time, Milone claimed an “old guard” was attempting to stop the avalanche of reforms promoted by Francis and his predecessor.
The then-Vatican deputy secretary of state, Italian Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, dismissed those charges as “false and unjustified.” The lay Italian head of the gendarmerie, Gian Domenico Giani, boasted of “overwhelming evidence” against Milone in an interview with Reuters.
Even Francis later appeared to take a shot, saying in a Christmas speech to the Roman Curia that carefully selected reformers who were “delicately sent away” had been corrupted by “ambition and conceit” and “erroneously declare themselves to be martyrs of the system, of the ‘uninformed pope,’ of the ‘old guard,’ instead of reciting the ‘mea culpa’.”
Yet just as Milone’s story appeared over, something within the Vatican began to shift this summer. In his own all-encompassing interview with Reuters, Francis lamented that “there is no transparency” in APSA, the Vatican’s general accounting office that also manages the Vatican’s real estate holdings.
He also said there was a need to change the “mentality” of the office, and later accepted the resignation of its head Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno. In his place he installed Bishop Nunzio Galantino, former head of the Italian bishops’ conference, who shares Francis’s easy-going approach and concern for the poor, tempered by his experience in bringing financial transparency to the Italian Church.
As part of this picture, Milone’s lawyers were summoned to the Vatican tribunal in May and presented with a letter stating that there are no criminal procedures against him. It was signed by the Vatican’s top magistrate, the same man who had signed a document listing charges against Milone a year ago along with the President of the Vatican tribunal.
“It’s very odd,” Milone said, thoughtfully stroking his hands together. “I am very relieved for how the situation evolved.”
With Becciu next being made a cardinal and moved to the Vatican’s Congregation for the causes of Saints, it seems nothing now stands in the way of the auditor returning to his post, who says he’s still willing, if asked, to jump back on board.
“I don’t like starting something and leaving it incomplete,” he said, adding that his concern lies also in creating a new institution for the Church.
“In view of these recent events, I believe that a reinstatement should be considered. The Holy Father needs to have support,” Milone said.
A compilation of lies
For an accountant, there’s an unusually casual flair to Milone’s appearance.
His dark blue suit is fit for comfort, and the knot of his tie rests loosely under the collar of his white shirt. Everything is half a size too big, and even his watch droops askew down his forearm. His brown leather monk shoes, while finely made, look capable of going a distance.
All that may suggest a personality capable of rolling with the punches. Nonetheless, Milone now says the “compilation of lies” presented against him at the Vatican a little over a year ago proved to be a “disaster” for his career.
“Since my ousting, I have not received any new offers of any kind,” Milone said. “You can imagine why!”
Ironically, in April 2017 the accountant actually declined a position as head of RaiWay, the publicly listed Italian TV company, in order to pursue the opportunity at the Vatican. Now, he said, companies prefer to opt for less controversial candidates as the word “spy” still appears prominently in Milone’s Google search.
Milone says he’s walked in and out of complicated situations before – the Delta failure, troubles at Fiat Chrysler and the bankruptcy of United Airlines – and was accustomed to CEOs and employees alike resisting his oversight. In the Vatican, he said, he was met with the same opposition.
“It is true to say that we discovered a series of anomalies and errors for which we had asked for corrections to be made,” Milone said. “Certain individuals might have been concerned about some of our findings, but it was something I expected.”
He described his approach in the Vatican as “thorough” and “methodical,” saying he created his own department and hand-selected his associates. He produced an audit manual and procedures, as well as an internal ethical code, for the Vatican auditors.
Milone also set out to facilitate the Vatican moving from cash-based accounting to accrual-basis accounting, in line with International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS). To offer a sense of scale, it took the team of accounting experts at the UN’s Food and Health Organization three years to adhere to IPSAS. No doubt the feat was especially daunting for the often-untrained priests, nuns and laymen typically charged with the Vatican’s bookkeeping.
Milone designed the approach to unfold in three stages: an understanding phase, a high-risk analysis phase and finally a detail phase. He claims he only got to 20 percent of the work, barely into the second phase, before he was sent away.
The former auditor likened his job to a photographer, but acknowledged some in the Vatican may have viewed him more as a judge and were worried about his verdict.
“We were examining documentation managed by cardinals, bishops, archbishops, priests, lay people and nuns,” Milone said. “Maybe in there, somebody was hiding something we didn’t see.”
Old sins cast long shadows
A standard bit of wisdom from the famed fictional detective Hercule Poirot is that “old sins cast long shadows,” an expression that can be easily adapted to the tormented history of the Vatican’s finances.
Some have speculated that Milone’s ouster was because he stumbled onto a few of those shadows, something the former auditor sees as a real possibility. Whether he was ultimately ensnared by those shadows, or getting close to revealing them, is the $64,000 question.
“Milone, you are still independent, right?” Francis would ask at every meeting, according to the former auditor.
“It underlined how, having analyzed my experience, he was concerned for pressures that maybe would have been raised,” he added.
Eventually Milone was no longer allowed to meet with the pope and was told by Becciu that their relationship had “cracked.”
The auditor suspects he was being spied upon. Just one month after taking the job his computer was hacked, and the paranoia of being bugged followed him until the end. He hired a private investigation company to check his office, and he eventually moved into different quarters.
Milone said that at the time, he and Australian Cardinal George Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and who is now back home fighting off criminal charges of “historical sexual abuse,” were trying to access information on APSA, traditionally among the most obscure of the Vatican’s various financial players.
Milone asked investigators to retrieve information on certain property holdings and public registers, which, according to him, was fully in line with his mandate.
Shortly afterwards, in June, Milone said he found himself sitting before Giani facing accusations of lying, spying and embezzlement. He claims his signature had been falsified to suggest he had used funds improperly. Three days later, Pell was summoned to Australia to answer historic charges of abuse against minors.
Just like that, he said, two spearheads of the pope’s financial reform were out of the picture.
The Bull and the Bee
“He died…” said Milone’s lawyer, interrupting the interview, while looking at his cellphone.
News had just broken of the death of Sergio Marchionne, former CEO of Fiat Chrysler, with whom Milone had worked with first when he was in Deloitte in 2004 and then as chairman of the Internal Control Committee of Fiat Industrial starting in 2011.
“He had become a friend of mine,” Milone said.
His otherwise jovial face suddenly turned serious, and for a moment he stopped stroking his hands. His hazel eyes – now gray – stared blindly at the table, obviously lost in another place, another time.
The former auditor recalled their working together and revealed there had also been disagreements with Marchionne. He explains that it is part of his work ethic to voice differences of opinion, something he admits would also happen with Pell.
A former rugby player, Pell could be likened to the pit bull of Vatican financial reform, bursting through obstacles with force and often leaving enemies in his wake. Milone, on the other hand, could be compared more readily to a bee — carefully, precisely setting things in order.
Bulls and bees don’t always see eye-to-eye, and Milone said that while he has “a lot of respect” for Pell, they were not allies. Instead, he said, with very different approaches they were “the front-runners of the financial reform,” acknowledging that reform today “is a little stalled.”
“In all the entities of the Vatican, there was a small core of people who didn’t want the reforms. By getting rid of me and Pell, maybe they solved their issue,” Milone said.
“But maybe those people are no longer there…” he added.
The former auditor has interpreted recent developments as a sign that Francis is willing to reboot the reform, which he’s confident “can still resume its course.”
Milone recalls a conversation with Pell before his departure to Australia, asking why he had not taken advantage of the immunity granted by the Vatican.
“Libero, you should know that my honor comes before everything else,” he said the cardinal answered.
Today, the former auditor feels the moment of his own vindication might be near.
“I must defend my reputation,” Milone said, “I am absolutely convinced, and I know I haven’t done anything.”
He states that his ethical code, his desire to serve the pope and the faithful, and his two-year experience within the Vatican would allow him to “do the job as it should be done.”
“I think it’s a good opportunity to serve my Church,” he said, joking that “I don’t want to become a martyr.”