ROME – Back in 2009, a frenzy broke out around the then-editor of the newspaper of the Italian bishops, a layman named Dino Boffo, with lurid media accounts first of his alleged homosexual misconduct, and then, when the charges turned out to be bogus, speculation about who’d set him up. Many theorized a complex plot involving the Vatican’s Secretary of State, the head of the Vatican gendarmes, and the editor of the Vatican paper.
Through it all, the Vatican stayed mute for 18 long days until it finally issued a rebuttal. At that point, people had already assumed silence signified consent, with one Italian daily breaking the news under the following headline: “The Vatican denies everything … No one believes it.”
Judging from Tuesday in Rome, all the pope’s men are determined not to let history repeat itself.
Facing a new wave of purported financial scandals, with a major piece in Italy’s most widely-read newsmagazine by one well-known journalist on Sunday and the launch of a new book by another Monday night, on Tuesday the empire struck back, with two of the pope’s closest counselors going on the offensive.
“To me, it seems that what’s going on more than anything else is a precise strategy to discredit us,” said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a member of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors and one of his closest allies.
“They want to strike the papacy,” the 76-year-old Honduran prelate said in an interview with Italy’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, La Repubblica. “First they depicted a church largely made up of pedophiles, now they’re suggesting economic recklessness, but it’s not so.”
Meanwhile, Italian Bishop Nunzio Galantino, tapped by Pope Francis last June as the new head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), the Vatican’s true financial powerhouse, also came out swinging in an interview with Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ paper of record.
Galantino is also seen as an extremely close papal ally.
“There’s no ‘crack’ or default here,” he said of the Vatican’s accounts.
“The scandalistic tone I read in the previews are fine for the launch of a book, but much less for describing a complex and articulated reality such as the Church, where those words absolutely aren’t synonymous with ‘secret’ or ‘devious’,” Galantino said.
The new reports of financial scandals come from Italian journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, and are said to be based on leaked documents including notes of internal Vatican investigations. Both Fittipaldi and Nuzzi were charged by Vatican prosecutors for publishing confidential financial information in 2015 amid what came to be known as “Vatileaks II,” though both eventually were absolved for lack of jurisdiction.
Fittipaldi’s report Sunday in L’Espresso pivoted on a land deal in London in which the Vatican’s Secretariat of State allegedly used $200 million from Peter’s Pence, an annual collection to support papal charities, to acquire a share in a former Harrod’s warehouse in Chelsea slated to be converted into luxury apartments. The Secretariat later requested a $150 million loan from the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called Vatican bank, to purchase the remaining shares of the property.
In keeping with its obligations under new Vatican rules on financial transactions, the Vatican bank reported the request to the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, triggering an investigation.
Rodriguez Maradiaga flatly rejected the idea that money for charities had been misappropriated.
“Funds from Peter’s Pence used for financial operations? Not based on what I know,” he said.
“The Secretariat of State has resources from different places, not just those of the papal charities – which, at the request of Pope Francis, must be used only and exclusively for good works,” Rodriguez Maradiaga said.
“I don’t believe it happened differently,” he said.
The Honduran cardinal also suggests it’s no accident these revelations are occurring while Francis is hosting a controversial Synod of Bishops devoted to the Amazon.
“During a Synod of Bishops about important content, this is forcing us to talk about something else,” he said.
Nuzzi’s new book, meanwhile, titled Final Judgment, claims that the Vatican is facing a financial crisis related to a drop in income, producing a deficit which, according to Nuzzi, “has reached worrisome levels, at risk of leading to default.”
Nuzzi also suggested that part of the problem with getting a clear picture of the Vatican’s true financial situation is the existence of secret accounts at APSA, sheltering holdings of unnamed individuals.
Galantino basically said all of that is either false or exaggerated.
“APSA does not have secret or coded accounts, and there’s proof to the contrary,” he said. “In APSA, there aren’t even any accounts of physical or juridical persons, except for the dicasteries of the Holy See, related entities and the Government of the Vatican City State.”
While conceding that the Vatican is presently conducting a spending review, Galantino rejected talk of a default.
“There’s a need for a spending review to contain personnel costs and material acquisitions, and we’re working on it with great care and attention, but there’s no alarmism about a hypothetical ‘default,’” he said.
“What we’re talking about is a situation in which we realize we have to contain our spending,” Galantino said, “as happens in any good family or any serious state.”
Galantino also rejected suggestions that the financial controversies and leaks are the product of internal resistance to Francis and his reforms inside the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.
“To oppose the pope to the Curia is a worn-out journalistic cliché,” he said. “We’re all continuing to work to balance income and expenses, and in that we’re doing exactly, and only, what the pope wants.”
“Other readings of the situation call to mind The Da Vinci Code, an absolutely fictionalized approach to reality,” Galantino said.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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