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Keystone Crooks: the Vatican’s latest financial scandal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 30, 2019

Ed Condon has done yeoman service, reporting on the latest financial scandal at the Vatican for CNA. It’s a complicated story, involving a series of imprudent and/or illicit transactions, and Condon chases down the details to provide the full picture.

But if you read that full story, I suspect you’ll find yourself wondering whether this is fact or fantasy, CNA or The Onion, an accurate account or a reporter’s nightmare. Is it possible that the Vatican’s financial affairs could be so chaotic, so imprudent, so palpably corrupt? Is it possible that two different archbishops could invest tens of millions of dollars without appropriate authorization, diverting funds from charitable agencies into speculative ventures? Could there really be a priest “who had a reputation for leaving [his] offices near the Vatican with shoeboxes full of cash,” and set up his own office “to attract investments for oil and mineral prospecting along the border region between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola”? And if such a clerical wheeler-dealer did exist, would even the soft-headed prelates at the Vatican be foolish enough to back his schemes?

It can’t possibly be true, can it? But it is. And this is not the scandal that prompted Vatican police to raid the offices of the Secretariat of State. That was an entirely different scandal.

As Condon reports, Father Franco Decaminada—the priest with the investments in African oil exploration—has now been imprisoned and laicized. But notice that he “had a reputation” for carrying shoeboxes full of cash—which means that his neighbors and colleagues noticed that habit. Anyone who saw the shoeboxes—to say nothing of anyone who was asked to invest tens of millions of dollars—should have known that something was terribly wrong. But the scheming continued for months, and in their ham-handed attempts to cover up their misdeeds, Vatican officials committed even more outrageous blunders.

So one cardinal diverted millions from a hospital—funds that had come from the Italian government—and used them to prop up an insolvent institution. When that wasn’t enough, another cardinal offered tens of millions in loans, using funds from the Peter’s Pence collection. When that loan was not repaid, yet another cardinal pressured an American foundation to donate tens of millions to cover the gap. And when the lay trustees of that foundation objected, one more cardinal—this time the Secretary of State—declared that the donation would be treated as a loan, and repaid, eventually.

At each step of this convoluted process, Vatican officials investing the funds were not authorized—in some cases explicitly forbidden—to do so. At each step the officials making the investment tried to cover their tracks. The entire CNA story offers a portrait of blundering, amateurish crooks.

This story, remember, is only one of the two major financial scandals that have come to light this month, as a new raft of confidential Vatican documents has been made public. There will be more. But already we know enough to draw two conclusions.

First, Cardinal Angelo Becciu is in deep trouble. The former sostituto, now prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is a central figure in both of the latest scandals. He is also the Vatican official who blocked an audit in 2016, and forced the resignation of the Vatican’s auditor general the next year. While Cardinal Becciu denies any wrongdoing, he has a long list of awkward questions to answer.

Second, the “reform” of Vatican financial affairs, very much like the “reform” of sex-abuse standards, is entirely dependent on the commitment of the prelates who enforce the new rules. In both cases, the official policies and procedures sound promising, but we have now learned that prelates ignore those policies, with impunity. The problem here is not the laws, but the prelates who consider themselves above the laws.

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: dover beachcomber - Nov. 03, 2019 1:33 PM ET USA

    To the list of problems, I would add the prelates who were responsible for enforcing the policies, and the Prelate who was responsible for making sure they did so. In the latter case, I realize that it’s hard for him to find the time when he’s frequently jetting around the world scolding everyone else about the environment.