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Cardinal Pell vindicated, Cardinal Parolin rebuked

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 06, 2020

At first glance yesterday’s surprise announcement from the Vatican looks like a routine matter: a shift in office responsibilities. But look more carefully, and the announcement is remarkable for three things:

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  1. a rare display of candor;
  2. a rebuke for the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; and
  3. a vindication for Cardinal George Pell.

Rare candor

Even after the multiple financial scandals of recent years, the Vatican is notoriously tight-lipped. If anyone were to draw his information solely from official Vatican announcements, he would have only the vaguest of notions that some unpleasantness had occurred. The Vatican press office, true to form, couched the November 5 announcement in a dull, wordy release, providing a list of the Vatican officials who had attended a meeting the previous evening and announcing the formation of a new commission to carry out the Pope’s orders.

Still a careful reader would have been struck by the listing of Vatican officials present at that meeting. If all these heavyweights were in the room, something important was obviously under discussion:

Pope Francis presided over a meeting attended by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin; the Substitute of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra; the Secretary General of the Governorate of Vatican City State, Bishop Fernando Vergez; the President of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See , Bishop Nunzio Galantino; and the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, Fr Juan Antonio Guerrero.

Vatican News, another official house organ, provided more context for the story, with a focus on the letter that Pope Francis had sent in August to the Secretariat of State, calling for a transfer of the Secretariat’s investment funds to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). The Pope wrote that this transfer was “of the utmost importance” and should be done as quickly as possible. If the funds could not be transferred immediately, the Pontiff said, the Secretariat should “at least, dispose of them in such a way as to eliminate all reputational risks.”

The “reputational risks,” of course, arise from the sort of shady financial deals that the Secretariat of State has made recently—the sort of deals that have prompted criminal investigations, and led to the ouster of Cardinal Angelo Becciu from the Roman Curia; the sort of deals that have cost the Vatican millions of dollars in lost investment, along with further millions in fees to the people who presided over the losses. The Pope’s letter was an unmistakable signal that he wanted to ensure that the Secretariat of State could never make such investment blunders again.

The Pope’s letter to Cardinal Parolin could be summarized, roughly but not inaccurately, as saying: “Your office has been badly burned, and it’s damaged the reputation of the Holy See. We must take action to see that this never happens again.”

Rebuke for Cardinal Parolin

No one enjoys receiving that sort of message, and for Cardinal Parolin, the papal letter must have carried a special sting. The Secretariat of State had in the past strongly defended Cardinal Becciu. Now he was charged with cleaning up the mess that Becciu had created—and doing it quickly.

In the November 5 release, the Vatican announced that the new commission was charged with transferring funds from State to APSA within three months. That’s an extraordinarily tight deadline, measured by ordinary Vatican standards; notice that it took the same amount of time—three months—from the date of the Pope’s urgent letter in August to the date of the meeting at which officials decided what to do about that letter. Now the new commission is being asked to wind up complex financial deals in the same amount of time: very likely an impossible task.

As it navigates through a financial mine field, trying to withdraw from investments without incurring new losses, the commission will always be mindful of the “reputational risks” attached to those investments. If Cardinal Becciu chooses not to bow out quietly, he could complicate the process considerably. His lawyer has given a preview of possible coming fireworks, by letting slip the claim that Pope Francis himself was aware of the controversial London real-estate deal at the center of the scandal that brought down Becciu.

For Cardinal Parolin the public chastisement of his former subordinate must be especially painful. Only rarely does the Secretariat of State lose internal battles at the Vatican, and this is unquestionably a loss. Pope Francis did his best to soften the blow, going out of his way in his August letter to prop up the prestige of the Secretariat of State, saying that it is “without a shadow of a doubt, the dicastery which sustains more closely and directly the action of the Holy Father in his mission.” But the fact that the Pope felt obliged to write those words only underlines the reality that he was rebuking his top aide. Writing in the National Catholic Register, Father Raymond de Souza said:

It is a massive vote of papal non-confidence in the current management of the Secretariat of State, and a radical change in the way the Vatican has organized its financial affairs.

A vindication for Cardinal Pell

The Vatican’s November 5 announcement comes shortly after Cardinal George Pell returned to Rome, newly cleared of the spurious sex-abuse charges that had taken him off the scene. Was that timing a coincidence? Maybe, but the symbolism was hard to miss.

During his tenure as prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy, Cardinal Pell had clashed repeatedly with the Secretariat of State, and in particular with then-Archbishop Becciu. The Australian cardinal lost those rounds of intramural battling, and eventually was driven from the Vatican scene—with more than a few observers suspecting that Becciu and his allies had a hand in encouraging the Australian prosecutors who called Pell home to face conviction and months of imprisonment before his first vindication.

Now comes a second vindication. Before he left Rome, Cardinal Pell had campaigned to bring the investments of the Secretariat of State under control, to ensure accountability for the State budget. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Pope Francis has ordered the sort of reforms for which the Australian cardinal had fought, several years ago.

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: grateful1 - Nov. 07, 2020 3:16 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis -- thanks, Phil.