Cardinal Becciu departs—only after ousting would-be reformers

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 25, 2020

At last, decisive action to address financial corruption at the Vatican! At last, a ranking prelate has been held accountable!

After years of promising reforms and accountability—while leaving effective power in the hands of those who opposed reform—Pope Francis has finally broken the pattern.

Consider the astonishing damage that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu had done to the cause of reform before he was finally forced to resign himself:

  • Becciu had stymied the reforms proposed by Cardinal George Pell, blocking an independent audit and successfully undermining the authority of the new Secretariat for the Economy.
  • Becciu had forced the abrupt departure of the Vatican’s auditor general, Libero Milone, threatening him with a criminal complaint when he sought to investigate Becciu’s financial dealings.
  • Becciu had helped to drive Ettore Gotti Tedeschi out of his post as head of the Vatican bank, to prompt Rene Bruelhart to resign as president of the Financial Information Authority, and to put Domenico Giani in an untenable position that forced his resignation as head of the Vatican Gendarmerie.

Now that Becciu has resigned, and lost his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals, it might be wise to revisit some of those earlier personnel moves. How did he thwart so many would-be reformers? How did he gain enough influence to survive for so long, even as the questions multiplied about his financial dealings?

In many respects the Becciu case mirrors the case of Theodore McCarrick, the last prelate to be stripped of his privileges as a cardinal. Becciu’s offenses are less appalling, and his punishment is less severe. (He is not laicized, and the Vatican announcement pointedly gave him the title of cardinal, even though he is stripped of the privileges of membership in the College.) In both cases the Vatican’s disciplinary action leaves the Catholic world wondering: Who were his sponsors and protectors? And when will we know the full truth about his use and abuse of ecclesiastical power?

The Vatican’s terse announcement of Becciu’s resignation gave no clues whatsoever about the cause of his downfall. (Perhaps the immediate cause was an article that the Italian journal L’Espresso reportedly had readied for publication, detailing the Italian prelate’s questionable transactions.) But for months Becciu had been the focal point of investigation into at least two major financial scandals. Nearly a year ago, in an analysis of the Vatican’s financial troubles, I wrote: “Cardinal Angelo Becciu is in deep trouble.” The Catholic News Agency, which has done excellent work probing the details of the financial scandals, has now produced an excellent summary of the case against Becciu.

Becciu was not just another Vatican official who dabbled amateurishly in financial affairs. (There are many others in that category, sad to say.) He was the sostituto: the Vatican’s equivalent of a chief of staff, the custodian of all paperwork flowing through the Roman Curia, the powerful prelate who meets virtually every day with the Pope. He had effective control over the proceeds from the Peter’s Pence collection, and when he invested those funds, although he was not authorized to do so, his decisions went unquestioned—until those pesky reformers began to ask where all the money was going.

Even then, when Vatican investigators raided Becciu’s former office at the Secretariat of State last October, looking for answers to their questions, the net results showed Becciu’s enduring clout. Within a few weeks, Bruelhart had resigned as head of the Financial Information Authority, which had been questioning the transactions; Giani had resigned as head of the Vatican Gendarmerie, which had conducted the raid. And Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, had issued a statement of support for the embattled Cardinal Becciu.

By that time, however, Cardinal Becciu was no longer the sostituto. He had been given a cardinal’s red hat and promoted to a new post as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. And therein lies another interesting tale.

When Cardinal Pell conducted the first rigorous analysis of Vatican finances, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints came in for special scrutiny. The Secretariat for the Economy found a near-total lack of control over the use of funds collected from the faithful to promote the causes of saints. In 2016 the Vatican issued new rules, specific to that congregation, to address the situation. And two years later, in an ironic move, the archbishop who as sostituto made a series of questionable financial transactions became the cardinal heading the congregation with a history of questionable finances.

To be fair, there is no reason to suspect that Becciu took new liberties with the finances of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The Vatican had already imposed controls on spending; the abuses were, we trust, addressed. But questions about that office, and every other office inside the Vatican, will persist until we know the truth about the curious career of Cardinal Becciu, and the Vatican culture that supported him.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Sep. 29, 2020 9:56 AM ET USA

    If we are waiting "until we know the truth" then we will be waiting a very long time. The problem is the Church appears to desire to be an earthly power rather than being prophets of God Almighty. In the final analysis when Church leadership are judged there will be many who will hang there head in shame and few who will hold their head high. Pray that more will desire to be prophets not make profits.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 25, 2020 10:59 PM ET USA

    The most severe damage to the Church is not in missing funds, however substantial, but in the loss of moral authority, and the loss of credibility at the HIGHEST levels of the Holy See. It puts many souls of the faithful in grave danger. I'm not sure if the current Pope fully realizes it. Many of his appointments seem reckless and not based on merit. One possibility why the networks of corruption are almost impossible to break up is that the culprits could be sexually involved with each other.