Let me start by answering the question posed in the headline: we don’t know. YET. But things are looking pretty suspicious. I’ll get to that in more detail in just a bit.
First, let’s rewind a little bit to set the scene. The year is 2015. Pell, working as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, finds “vast sums of undeclared money … hidden in various bank accounts by organizations and groups within the Holy See in Rome.”
The same year, Libero Milone is hired as Auditor General by Pope Francis to try to sort out what’s going on behind the financial scenes in Rome. He then suddenly resigns, without explanation. He later discloses that he was charged with espionage and embezzlement, and that his resignation was forced under threat of imprisonment by the Vatican police.
In 2017, Pell is suddenly confronted with allegations of sexual abuse in his homeland of Australia — allegations that are decades old. He winds up on trial, and is convicted with zero evidence or corroborating witness testimony, and spends the next 13 months in prison for a crime nobody could hope to prove he committed – and for which, he was later acquitted on appeal.
What did Pell and Milone have in common? They both poked around in the murky world of Vatican finance — and they both signed a letter…
…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.
And who had his sticky fingers in the affairs of APSA? That’s right, one Angelo Becciu — described by the Tablet’s Christopher Lamb as “the most loyal of papal aides” — who is credited for having personally stopped Pell’s audit, and who was at the heart of several other Vatican scandals. Writing in October of last year, CNA’s Ed Condon reported:
Multiple sources in the United States and in Rome have confirmed to CNA that then-Archbishop Becciu was responsible for organizing a concerted effort by other Vatican officials and American cardinals – including then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick – to pressure the board of the U.S.-based Papal Foundation to approve a grant of $25 million in 2017.
Although American donors were told the money was to ease a temporary cash shortage at the IDI hospital, sources in the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Papal Foundation told CNA that the true purpose of the loan was to help remove a 50 million euro debt from APSA’s books.
The debt was the result of an APSA loan to a non-profit partnership between the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and an Italian religious order, which borrowed the money to purchase the IDI. The hospital, in bankruptcy at the time it was purchased, was unable to repay the debt, and because the loan violated European banking agreements, it stood to put APSA under strict regulatory oversight.
Becciu, who was then the second-ranking figure at the Secretariat of State, reportedly stepped in to stop the bad loan from putting APSA and the hospital at risk of more serious financial scandal.
According to one senior source at APSA, Becciu was the “driving force” behind efforts to secure the grant from the Papal Foundation, even while American cardinals were assured that the request came directly from Pope Francis.
“Of course it was [Cardinal Becciu] who was behind the grant request,” one senior figure at APSA told CNA. “He was very personally concerned that the IDI deal was sanated and would pose no further scandals.”
The financial scandals at the Vatican are often convoluted and difficult to follow, especially to people living in the Anglosphere, accustomed to more straightforward ways of doing business and greater instruments of financial transparency. But they have everything to do with an extremely unexpected turn of events that took place in September this year.
Despite his universally recognized loyalty to the pope, it appears that Becciu’s loyalty to his own interests were greater. Last month, it was announced that Becciu had resigned not only his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, but also the rights of the Cardinalate.
The reason appeared to be a loss of papal trust over corruption allegations — allegations that Becciu denies. Nevertheless, as CNA reported on September 24 of this year, during Becciu’s tenure at the Secretariate of State
he was linked to a number of financial scandals, most recently the Secretariat’s investment of hundreds of millions of euros with the Italian businessman Rafaelle Mincione and the controversial purchase of a London building.
CNA has previously reported that a substantial part of the $200 million used to finance the Secretariat of State’s purchase of a luxury development at 60 Sloane Avenue came through credit extended by BSI, a Swiss bank with a long track record of violating money-laundering and fraud safeguards in its dealings with sovereign wealth funds.
CNA has also reported that in 2015 Becciu seemed to have made an attempt to disguise the loans on Vatican balance sheets by cancelling them out against the value of the property purchased in the London neighborhood of Chelsea, an accounting maneuver prohibited by new financial policies approved by Pope Francis in 2014.
The alleged attempt to hide the loans off-books was detected by the Prefecture for the Economy, then led by Cardinal George Pell. Senior officials at the Prefecture for the Economy told CNA that when Pell began to demand details of the loans, especially those involving BSI, then-Archbishop Becciu called the cardinal in to the Secretariat of State for a “reprimand.”
The picture should, at this point, be resolving itself. Becciu had it in for Pell, because Pell was poking around where Becciu didn’t want him looking. And there has been a suspicion for quite some time that Pell’s sex abuse trial may have been deliberately orchestrated by opposition forces in Rome. As Marco Tosatti said in his March 1, 2019 column: “the cannons are in Australia, but the cannonballs were made in the Vatican.”
Put more directly: Pell was already hated in an Australia that resented his political conservatism and his rebukes of popular progressive issues. All they needed was the ammunition to take him down, and it appeared as though someone in Rome may have supplied it.
All of which brings us back to our buried lede: it is now being reported that Becciu channeled 700,000 euros — over a million US dollars — to someone in Australia during the time of Cardinal Pell’s trial.
Ed Pentin writes at the Register:
According to an article in today’s Corriere della Sera, officials in the Secretariat of State have compiled a dossier showing numerous bank transfers, including one amounting to 700,000 euros that Cardinal Becciu’s department sent to an “Australian account.”
The dossier has been presented to Vatican prosecutors ahead of a possible upcoming trial of Cardinal Becciu. Pope Francis accepted his resignation on Sept. 24 and withdrew his rights as a cardinal but the Vatican has given no reason for his dismissal. The cardinal has denied the allegations against him as “surreal” and “all a misunderstanding.”
In its article, Corriere della Sera noted that Cardinal Pell, whom the newspaper described as one of Cardinal Becciu’s “enemies,” had been forced at the time to return to Australia and stand trial on sexual abuse charges of which he was eventually exonerated.
Corriere della Sera also reported that according to Msgr. Alberto Perlasca — a Secretariat of State official who worked under Cardinal Becciu during the period from 2011 to 2018 when the cardinal served as the Secretariat of State’s sostituto (its deputy secretary of state) — Cardinal Becciu was known to “use journalists and contacts to discredit his enemies.”
“It is precisely in this vein that the payment in Australia would have been made, possibly in connection with Pell’s trial,” the article claimed.
The newspaper stated in the article that it had not obtained confirmation that Cardinal Becciu was personally responsible for the Australian bank transfer, or who the beneficiaries of the transaction were, and consequently was investigating these matters further.
A Vatican source with detailed knowledge of the matter confirmed the contents of the Corriere della Sera report to the Register on Oct. 2, and the existence of the bank transfer to Australia. “The year and date of the transfer are recorded in the archives of the Secretariat of State,” the source said.
The funds were “extra-budgetary,” meaning they did not come from ordinary accounts, and were ostensibly transferred for “works to be done” on the Australian nunciature, the source said.
At CNA, Ed Condon, who has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years digging into the various labyrinthine financial scandals in Rome, has an even more detailed analysis today of what we know and what we don’t about these new allegations. He also offers a note of caution:
The accusation that one curial cardinal used Church funds to enable a vexatious accusation of sexual abuse against another, apparently to stymie financial reform, is very “big” indeed. But so too are the many “if’s” that come along with it.
Cardinal Becciu has denied the allegation, and, to date, the charge remains essentially unattributed, and certainly unproven.
It would no doubt be the wiser thing to heed this admonition. But if history is any indicator, when there is smoke wafting from this or that recent Vatican scandal involving schemes concerning money or power, Becciu is often right there, attempting to conceal a gun.