ROME – Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has said there is no connection between the timing of the return of Australian Cardinal George Pell to Rome and the recent resignation of Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who are known rivals in the bid to reform the finances of the Holy See.
“There is no connection between the two things,” Parolin said Oct. 1, speaking to press on the margins of an event organized for the release of the book, Tunic and Cassock by Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, who oversees the communications department for the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
According to Parolin, after his release from prison Pell “asked to return to Rome. There was no summoning of Pell by the pope. It was he who asked to come to Rome to end his stay here, because he still has his apartment, so he came here to close it up.”
Pell arrived in Rome Wednesday, days after Becciu – the pope’s former chief of staff – resigned from his post as head of the Vatican’s department for saints and from his rights as a cardinal.
Though no formal reason was given for his departure in the Vatican’s Sept. 24 statement, Becciu held a private press conference the next day saying he had been accused of embezzling 100,000 euros ($116,200) and diverting it to companies owned by his brothers.
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Pell was released from prison in April after being acquitted on appeal by Australia’s High Court over the charge of abusing two choirboys while serving as Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s. He had spent 13 months behind bars.
Prior to his initial conviction, Pell oversaw the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and was considered the third-highest ranking official in the Vatican. His primary task was to clean up the Vatican’s murky financial situation, but his efforts were met with resistance, and it was known that he and Becciu sparred over the reform.
In a lengthy interview with Australian journalist Andrew Bolt after his release, Pell suggested that the allegations against him could be related to his efforts to clean up Vatican financial corruption, saying he didn’t have concrete evidence, but believed the man who accused him of sexual abuse had been “used.”
In the wake of Becciu’s resignation, Pell issued a statement in which he “thanked and congratulated” Pope Francis for firing Becciu, saying it was part of the pope’s effort “to clean up Vatican finances.”
“I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria,” he said, the latter referring to his home state in Australia.
As far as Pell’s activities while in Rome, Parolin said “I don’t know what his plans are,” but insisted again that “there is no connection between” his recent arrival and Becciu’s firing. He said he has been in contact with Becciu but declined to comment about it.
Parolin also spoke about his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Thursday, during which he said they addressed their differing views on how to handle China.
Prior to his visit, Pompeo authored an article in conservative magazine First Things criticizing the Vatican’s soft approach to China, saying it was losing its “moral authority” on religious freedom. Parolin later said he was “surprised” by Pompeo’s remarks, and that an article was not the right venue to have the conversation.
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In his comments to journalists, Parolin said his Oct. 1 meeting with Pompeo “went well in the sense that we had a conversation defined as cordial in which [Pompeo] expressed his reasons for why he made these interventions and we explained our reasons for which we are going along the path we’ve undertaken.”
Both parties maintain their different views about how to approach China, he said, but insisted “that was not the purpose of the meeting, to bring our positions closer.”
Parolin said he believed there was “articulated reasoning” for the United States’ hardline on China, but he believes Pompeo also had “an understanding for the method with which the Holy See approaches these problems.”
“We are all looking for religious freedom and for a normal life for the Church,” he said. “Where we differ is on the method of how to achieve these goals.”
Noting that the Vatican’s 2018 provisional agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops is set to expire this month, Parolin said the Vatican has requested an additional two-year deal ad experimentum.
“As long as it is ad experimentum it will be a secret,” he said, meaning the terms will not be made public. “For the next two years this is the request, and it should continue as it has been done so far. The hope is that it will work even better and that bishops of vacant dioceses can be appointed.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen