The Destruction of Cardinal Pell

Two years ago, when this story came out, I asked some friends and fellow journalists, “Is this the trigger-pull on Pell?” At the time, of course, his name wasn’t even being mentioned. But as the events unfolded that would later be referred to as “Vatileaks II,” media reports of new allegations of financial mismanagement at the Vatican left the question open of whether Pell, as the man put in place to sort things out, would be in the crosshairs.

At the time, there was already a creeping sense that Pell, during the tenure of his investigation into the Vatican bank (also known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR), had quickly become persona non grata. When he signed on to the 13 Cardinals Letter expressing concern about how the Synod was being conducted — something Francis was reported to have taken rather personally — his fall from grace accelerated.

Things were quiet for a while, particularly after Pope Francis pulled the plug on his own audit of the Vatican bank in September last year.

And then, this week, things exploded. Allegations that Pell engaged in sexual molestation decades ago originally surfaced two years ago, but have now transitioned from an investigation into formal charges. According to sources with knowledge of the Australian cardinal, the media in his home country have been hostile towards him for many years, and he isn’t well-loved by a significant portion of the clergy there. Pell’s own response has been an eagerness to finally have his day in court and fight the accusations he categorically denies. Nevertheless, in an article by Nancy Flory at The Stream, the entire affair is characterized as a “witch hunt” designed to destroy Pell’s reputation:

“Pell can never receive a fair trial,” writesThe Australian columnist Angela Shanahan. She is describing the “media witch-hunt” that has dogged Cardinal George Pell for two years. New and vague charges — of “historic sexual offenses” — were filed against Cardinal Pell yesterday morning. Cardinal Pell has repeatedly denied allegations of sexual abuse leveled against him. Still, the media in Australia have repeated claims about the Cardinal’s guilt. They’ve printed leaked information about the investigation against Pell, and claimed that charges were “imminent.” And hostile book on Cardinal Pell (Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell) came out in May.

The ‘Witch Hunt’

A few brave souls have challenged the Cardinal’s trial-by-media-innuendo. Amanda Vanstone, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and “no fan of organized religion,” decries the media’s hysteria over Cardinal Pell. “What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages … [it] is far worse than a simple assessment of guilt. The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial,” wrote Vanstone. “Isn’t it normal to try to ensure a person can get a fair trial,” she asks, “by keeping prejudicial, untested material out of the public arena?”

One can’t help but wonder whether decades-old allegations — usually impossible to prove — will do anything but leave Pell a man with a ruined reputation. Certainly, a guilty verdict under such circumstances seems unlikely. But with headlines like “The Pope’s Pedophile?” now circulating in the mainstream press, even an complete acquittal will never restore his good name.

I’ve had people ask me if I think he’s guilty. I know far too little about the circumstances to even make an educated guess. The vicious pursuit of his destruction tends to make me reflexively sympathetic, but the truth matters here a great deal. For his sake, and the sake of the alleged victims, I hope a fair and thorough trial is possible, and that the truth will come out.

One possible consideration regarding Pell’s potential guilt relates to the managerial style of Pope Francis. As I’ve noted before, the pope seems to have a tendency to surround himself with compromised men. From Msgr. Battista Ricca (also involved with the Vatican bank reform) to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia to Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, some of Francis’ most noteworthy associates are men with skeletons in their closets that could easily be taken out and put on display if they become…inconvenient. If Pell were a man with sexual abuse in his background, it could certainly be used against him if necessary. But even if he’s as innocent as the driven snow, the very fact that such allegations already existed might have provided the leverage necessary to put him in such a delicate position. After all, Pell was allowed to look into the Pandora’s box of the Vatican finances. And it’s hard not to wonder if he discovered too much.

Recall that in January of 2015, the “ousted chairman of the Vatican bank”, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, wrote an article in the Catholic Herald in which he warned Pell that he might very well not have been properly informed of all that had gone on in the bank’s recent history — and how he believed he was let go because of his “decision to present the board with a plan that would have totally changed the role and governance of the bank.” After giving his own side of the story, Tedeschi made a set of recommendations to Pell:

I honestly think that Cardinal Pell should get to the bottom of four mysteries:

1) Who changed the Vatican’s anti-money laundering law in December 2011 and why?
2) Who really decided that I should be discharged from the lay board as chairman of the Vatican bank on May 24 2012, and why?
3) Who disregarded Benedict XVI’s decision in favour of my rehabilitation?
4) Who refused to question me about all the above facts? Who does not want to know my version of the truth and why?

It’s impossible to read that list and not see it as an indictment of willful malfeasance on the part of unknown but powerful actors within the Vatican power structure.

The question of unseen hands making changes at the IOR is an intriguing one. It seems relevant here to note that part of the subtext behind the coup that overthrew the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) involved an allegation that an enormous bequest (30 million Swiss francs) given to the Order was handed over to the Vatican Bank. Marc Odendall, one of the key players in the von Boeselager faction of the SMOM story, was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to the board of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority – an oversight body created by Pope Benedict XVI to help clean up corruption and mismanagement at the IOR. Last December, at around the same time Albrech von Boeselager was being forced out of his position as Grand Chancellor of the Order, his brother Georg was appointed to a supervisory position at the Vatican Bank. And in the midst of it all, the trustee of the 30 million franc bequest was alleged, in one anonymously-written report that was circulated to the media earlier this year, to have made threats that if the lawsuit against her (filed by the SMOM to get control of their bequest) were not dropped, she was going to reveal dirty secrets about things going on within the Vatican’s own financial institutions:

“She knew some of the internal financial deals and workings of the Vatican, including, we must presume, some that were not entirely straightforward.”

It continues: “She was, it is now believed, indicating that, if she continued to be sued, or was prosecuted, she would tell the world what she knew about those internal Vatican financial dealings and would not hesitate to publicize the names of certain high-ranking Vatican officials and their connections with the transactions and deals.”

Returning to Pell’s own role in straightening out Vatican finances, recall, too, that he discovered over a billion euros “hidden” from the IOR books in 2015:

The vast sums of undeclared money have been hidden in various bank accounts by organisations and groups within the Holy See in Rome.

The funds have not been misused and are not part of corruption and scandal that have previously shamed the Vatican but the money has not been properly disclosed or available for the full use of the Vatican because it has been hidden away in an Italian practice of keeping aside undeclared finds.

“In an Italian practice of keeping aside undeclared funds.”

Really? So what would be illegal for anyone else is merely “an Italian practice”?

There is another recent story that might seem of minimal impact on its own, but takes on a larger significance in light of the larger questions surrounding corruption at the IOR. Libero Milone, the new Auditor General appointed by Pope Francis in 2015 to dig into the Vatican financial situation, suddenly and unexpectedly resigned last month. No details were given, but it is clear that Milone faced resistance from within the Vatican bureaucracy to financial reforms from the very beginning. Early in his tenure, for example, his computer was hacked. And according to Edward Pentin, “The disclosure of that story gave way to the scandal Vatileaks II.

Pentin also noted a particular point of resistance faced by both Milone and Pell:

More recently, he [Milone] signed a letter with Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, reprimanding the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican body responsible for managing the Vatican’s real estate, after it told Vatican departments to supply their financial information not to the general auditor, but to an outside one.

Milone and Cardinal Pell wrote a letter in May to all dicasteries saying “with deep regret” they had to intervene to refute APSA’s instruction. APSA’s arbitrary and unilateral action was viewed as an extraordinary encroachment not only on the authority of the Secretariat for the Economy and the auditor general, but also that of the Secretariat of State. And unlike the ending of the PwC audit last year, inside Vatican sources said it did not come from a higher authority, and was therefore read as a provocative move by APSA to “claw back” some of its powers.

APSA has been arguably the most resistant to reforms involving greater financial scrutiny.

According to a report at the American website, it was this situation with the APSA that may have led to Pope Francis turning against Pell and his work:

Pell did find a potential new source of revenue in commercial and residential spaces in Rome valued at 1 billion euros and managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, or APSA. According to the cardinal, the management wasn’t up to par, and in July 2014 Pope Francis gave Pell control of the properties.

However, APSA’s president, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, recently became close to Pope Francis, often seen dining with him at the Pope’s residence. Over the course of 18 months, Francis removed Pell’s control over APSA’s real estate. Some blame Pell’s belief in the free-market, of which Pope Francis is a well-known critic.

Francis killed his own audit last September.

So here, again, we are faced with a mystery: why did Milone resign just a little over a week before Pell was formally charged? Did he know what was coming? Did he realize that the obstacles stacked against their work were simply too high, that the corruption within the Vatican financial system was too deep?

Remember, too, how Professor Germano Dottori of the Institute for Strategic Studies at LUISS-Guido Carli University in Rome wrote an article earlier this year indicating that he believes financial leverage was brought to bear by international forces that ultimately led to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI:

The Italian and papal governments were simultaneously hit by a scandalous, coordinated, and unusually violent and unprecedented campaign, even involving more or less opaque maneuvers in the financial field, with the final effect coming to a head in November 2011 with Berlusconi’s departure from the Palazzo Chigi and, on February 10 [sic – 11], 2013, the abdication of Ratzinger. At the height of the crisis, Italy progressively saw its access to international financial markets closed, while the Institute for Religious Works (IOR) [the Vatican Bank] was temporarily cut out of the Swift 4 circuit. [emphasis added]

One of the lesser-known factors in the abdication of Pope Benedict is that in the days before his statement of resignation, banking within the Vatican had become all-but-impossible. The situation was a result of intentional pressure brought to bear against the Vatican — pressure some say was used to force the Vatican to clean up its financial corruption and comply with international banking standards, and others believed amounted to a form of blackmail against the person of the pope.

Imagine what it must have been like to audit this mess, to peel back layer after layer of corruption and obfuscation, to discover a billion euros hidden where it shouldn’t be, to try to identify the men behind the scenes, pulling strings and misdirecting attention.

This year, we’ve even seen rumors that the Vatican has become financially insolvent. Rumors that say it is because of this that the German Church, funded annually to the tune of billions of euros by the mandatory Church tax, has become such a powerful influence in Rome. Is it possible that the Rhine’s current flow into the Tiber is carried by a torrent of liquidity?

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

It does not seem a stretch to conclude that Cardinal Pell has made powerful enemies within the Vatican as he has chipped away at this convoluted and ossified system of financial management in a quest for transparency and compliance with banking standards. One person who reached out to me this week said it is even believed that there are those who, having abused the privileges of their Vatican offices for personal financial gain, are helping to fund the campaign against Pell.

Rumors are allegations are only that until the truth is brought into the light. If Pell is guilty of sexual abuse, he should be held accountable. But if this is a campaign to destroy him ginned up by those with the most to lose if the Vatican has to clean up its financial act, people with knowledge of what is happening should step forward to exonerate the man.

Either way, the destruction of Cardinal Pell appears, at this point, to be a fait accompli.

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