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Under-the-radar signs of progress in Vatican reforms

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 22, 2015

Have you noticed that as Christmas approaches, you spend less time reading news headlines? There are two reasons for that phenomenon. First, you have other things on your mind; you’re busy with your last-minute preparations for the great feast. Second, the people who usually make the news—the politicians and entertainers and corporate executives and religious leaders—all know that you’re busy. So they save their big splashy announcements for a time when they can command more attention.

By the same logic, these last few days before Christmas are an ideal time for under-the-radar announcements. If you need to make a statement, but you really don’t want people to pay attention, this is a good week for it.

Since Vatican officials have the same PR concerns as any other executives, and since the process of reform in the Roman Curia will inevitably involve some in-house conflicts, let’s take a closer look at the news from Rome this week, and see if there are any developments that warrant extra scrutiny.

Since we’re talking about public relations, let’s start with the Vatican press office, and the appointment of an American, Greg Burke, as deputy director of the Vatican press office. This is, actually, wonderful news, of the sort that should have been timed for maximum publicity. Unfortunately the Vatican press office has never had a good sense of how stories should be handled. Which is exactly why it’s such a good idea to put Burke—a seasoned journalist who knows how the media work—in this role. There are rumors that Burke will eventually be promoted to director of the press office, succeeding Father Federico Lombardi. That would be another giant step in the right direction. In the short term, Burke’s presence would seem to decrease the need for the press office to rely on Father Thomas Rosica, the thin-skinned Canadian priest who has been working with the English-speaking media, and sometimes creating his own controversies.

Last week’s positive report from Moneyval, the committee of European bank examiners, looked like another clear win for the cause of Vatican reform. But Vatican-watcher Andrea Gagliarducci shows that the report came with a distinct caveat. Moneyval found that Vatican officials have cleaned up questionable financial transactions—so far, so good—but have not yet taken action against anyone responsible for shady deals:

Moneyval stressed that there are 29 reports of suspect transactions, that four reports have been passed on to the Promotor of Justice (the Vatican public prosecutor) and that 11.2 million euros are frozen. However-– Moneyval noticed-– no indictments have been made following these measures.

The Moneyval report was not necessarily a rebuke to the Vatican. Rather, it was a reminder that the jury is still out. The process of unwinding financial transactions—some of them many years old, and poorly documented—is a complicated one. But eventually some successful prosecutions will be needed, to convince the world’s bankers that the Vatican has permanently slammed the door on manipulative financiers.

In November, the embarrassing revelations of the “Vatileaks II” documents included a charge that a charitable foundation spent €200,000 to remodel the Vatican apartment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the former Secretary of State. This week Cardinal Bertone made a €150,000 donation to that foundation. He insisted that this was a free-will donation, not a reimbursement. But it seems noteworthy that immediately after the announcement of Cardinal Bertone’s donation, his successor, Cardinal Parolin, made a courtesy visit to the hospital attached to the same foundation. Maybe the visit from Cardinal Parolin was unrelated to the gift from Cardinal Bertone, and maybe the latter gift was unrelated to the November controversy. But it’s not too difficult for a cynic to speculate that the facts are connected, and one more item has been checked off on the to-do list of Vatican reforms.

Which is not to say that the process of reform is complete, or even that the opposition to reforms has been defeated. One year ago today, I made my own proposal for the one personnel change that would send the strongest message about the Pope’s determination to change attitudes in the Roman Curia. There’s no sign—not even a rumor—that it’s likely to happen soon.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 22, 2015 9:56 PM ET USA

    I can never understand existence of the behind-the-curtain "positions of influence" in the Church as they create instant potential for all sorts of corruption. Pope Francis is exceptionally good in cleaning up that area; he's better in this than other Popes. And Card. Sodano? He is 88 already.