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Another Vatican Scandal or Just Business as Usual?

Vatican prosecutors, working with Italian authorities, executed a search and seizure warrant” on July 15. Cell phones and iPads belonging to London financier Raffaele Mincione were seized at a hotel in Rome.

Mincione, former fiancé of Paul McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills, had filed two civil lawsuits in the UK’s High Court of Justice against the Vatican on June 20. Both lawsuits are related to a deal brokered by Mincione for the Vatican in 2014 – their purchase of a 45% interest, through his holding company the Athena Global Opportunities Fund, in a London building to be converted into luxury apartments.

That deal “raised questions about the Vatican’s murky finances and poor investment strategies in the past decade and sparked fresh speculation about its Machiavellian turf battles, power struggles and score-settling,” the Associated Press reported.

Mincione’s two lawsuits “amount to defamation claims, seeking to have the High Court declare that his conduct was above board and thus the Vatican unfairly has injured his reputation by presenting him publicly as a suspect” in a deal that was mismanaged by several prelates.

Before filing the lawsuits, “Mincione’s lawyers reportedly approached the Vatican in May about buying the property back for roughly what’s been spent on it, but, according to those accounts, the Vatican’s [prosecutors] blocked the proposal.” On June 23, Mincione, through his lawyers, presented a “full-bodied” defense to the Vatican magistrates of “25 pages and about three thousand attachments” also with no affect.

The deal occurred after Mincione “had been approached about investing $200 million on behalf of the Vatican in an oil company in Angola. The operation was the idea of then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu, at the time the number two official in the Secretariat of State and a former papal ambassador in Angola …. Eventually the Angola project fell apart, leading Mincione to propose investing the $200 million in a London real estate deal instead …. Mincione, based on Italian media reports, is a well-known corporate raider,” according to a report in L’Espresso.

The Secretariat’s purchase of the property at 60 Sloane Ave. was financed in part by a loan from BSI, a Swiss bank that has since been “dissolved by Swiss authorities for failure to report suspected money laundering and adhere to other anti-fraud regulations.”

Peter’s Pence 

Other funds came from the Peter’s Pence collection, money donated by people around the world for the pope to aid the poor and the needy. Only 10% has been used by Pope Francis for that purpose according to the Wall Street Journal:

The use of Peter’s Pence funds in the current pontificate for mostly opaque business deals had already been reported in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s book, Merchants in the Temple, published in 2015. Nuzzi put the amount given to the needy at 20%.

For the first nine months of Pope Francis’ reign in 2013, the Peter’s Pence collection totaled €378 million according to Emilio Fittipaldi’s book, Avarice: Papers that Reveal Wealth, Scandals and Secrets in the Church of Francis published the same day as Nuzzi’s book. (The Vatican’s previous practice of publicly reporting the amount of the annual Peter’s Pence collection was ended by Pope Francis.)

Since 2016, Pope Francis has increased his personal income designated for charity in other ways.  The Peter’s Pence fund was given its own web site for online contributions. Pope Francis’ messages, published daily on Twitter and Instagram, include links for making Peter’s Pence donations for “all people who want to help those most in need.” The papal Twitter accounts in nine languages have over 40 million followers and his Instagram account is close to 5 million.”

In addition, Pope Francis receives “lavish donations” from celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and businessmen like Apple’s Tim Cook. The pope is also given personal gifts; some are auctioned, some are raffled. Pope Francis even profits from the sale of “Superpope” T-shirts depicting him in the iconic image of Superman, fist extended, flying through the air.

The pope never discloses how much is raised or how most is spent.

THE 2018 DEAL 

The Secretariat of State’s new number two, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra who had replaced Becciu, decided to pull out of the Athena fund in 2018. “The exit strategy involved the Secretariat purchasing the remaining 55 percent of the property.”

Rather than a straightforward purchase, the decision was made once again to involve a middleman.

Someone in the Secretariat consulted with the attorney, Manuele Intende, who recommended that Gianluigi Torzi, another Italian financier based in London, handle the transaction. “Notes of the meetings show that Mr. Intendente …. signed documents for the deal using Ernst & Young’s corporate address in Rome. However, the Financial Times has learnt that EY never authorized Mr. Intendente to work on [the] deal with the Vatican [and his] contract was terminated.” Torzi “had been a suspect in multiple criminal investigations [and] was flagged on a global anti-money laundering watchlist,” reported the Financial Times.

Msgr. Alberto Perlasca; who had served under Becciu for nearly a decade as head of the Secretariat’s administrative office, “then went to his bosses at the Secretariat to get them to authorize the deal. Documents seen by the Financial Times show that three weeks before Mr. Torzi’s company took control of the building, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, head of the Secretariat of State and the second most powerful man in the Vatican after Pope Francis, authorized his deputy, the Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra to take control of the Secretariat’s bank accounts.”

“A contract seen by the FT shows that on Nov. 22 Msgr. Perlasca signed an agreement with Mr. Torzi on behalf of the Vatican that would come to give Mr. Torzi complete control of the building” through his Luxembourg shell company, Gutt SA.

“On Nov. 28, Abp. Peña Parra sent a request to Credit Suisse in Lugano asking for payment to be made” to Gutt SA.

And so the Secretariat still had no control of the property and the decision was made to break with Torzi. “In April 2019 he left the scene collecting 10 million euros in commissions.” Torzi told the Financial Times “he was paid this money fairly by the Vatican for the work he did related to the London property.”

And again, rather than buying the building outright, the Secretariat set up their own holding company, London 60 SA Ltd incorporated in the UK, through which the Secretariat controls the company, 60 SA Ltd, registered in Jersey (a tax shelter in the Channel Islands) which in turn owns the property on Sloane Ave.

“The UK’s registrar of companies lists the Holy See Secretariat of State as the single shareholder and legal person with … the right to appoint and remove directors.

Msgr. Mauro Carlino, head of the Information and Documentation Office in the Secretariat, was listed as a director in May 2019.  Prior to that, Carlino was personal secretary to Becciu between 2011 and 2018. Carlino was terminated as a director in August 2019.

Dr. Caterina Sansone, another Secretariat employee, was also listed as a director.

Several other directors were appointed and removed by the Secretariat in 2019, noted the [independent] Catholic News Agency.

As of July 20, 2020, “the property is [still] owned by SA 60 Ltd … but ultimately controlled by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See,” reported The [London]Times.

Others Vatican departments get involved

The Vatican’s financial crime monitoring unit, the AIF (Italian acronym for Financial Intelligence Agency) became involved because Pena Parra filed a suspicious transaction report with them.

Pena Parra’s report “triggered the start of a five-nation intelligence investigation” by the AIF “alongside counterparts in Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Jersey to trace the financial flows from the deal,” reported the Financial Tines.

“When the Secretariat asked the IOR (acronym for the Vatican Bank, formally the Institute of Religious Works) to loan money to finalize the purchase”  a formal complaint was lodged with the Vatican’s prosecutor by Gian Franco Mammi, director general of the IOR.

“While that may seem to make Mammì a whistleblower, Fittipaldi quotes unnamed Vatican insiders claiming that his actual motive was to wrest control of the Peter’s Pence funds away from the Secretariat of State for the Vatican bank.”

THE RAID

Details of the purchase of the London property were unknown to the public until, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, Vatican police raided offices of the Secretariat of State and the AIF. “They seized documents, computers, telephones and passports and blocked bank accounts.”

Five employees were suspended:

Three are described by Reuters as having “minor roles” in the Secretariat:

Caterina Sansone, briefly listed as a director of London 60 SA Ltd, “acted as a figurehead to facilitate the bureaucratic paperwork,” noted Crux news.

Fabrizio Tirabassi had been briefly listed as a director of Gutt SA.

Vincenzo Mauriello was noted only as another Secretariat administrative employee.

Msgr. Mauro Carlino, also briefly listed as a director of London 60 SA Ltd, was  “highly esteemed” according to ANSA, the Italian news service.

The AIF’s No. 2 official, Tommaso Di Ruzza,  was described as “devoted to transparency and control to prevent illegal actions” by Vatican reporter Francesca Bernasconi.

Many Vatican reporters thought the raid unnecessary or having a hidden motive.

“If there was corruption, can this corruption be attributed to … low ranking officials who have no power ?” asked Andrea Gagliarducci.

“Could not these documents and electronic devices been requested and reviewed through ordinary channels?” opined Dr. Robert Moynihan.

“The controversial raid, which torpedoed the AIF investigation … suggests that the prosecutors’ investigation was sparked at least in part by fears that the AIF was being too aggressive in rooting out financial malfeasance that could have implicated high ranking Vatican officials,” Crux reported.

“An attack by groups of interests is underway that did not like the attempt by the AIF to make the Vatican Bank accounts more transparent,” the Associated Press stated.

On October 3, “Pope Francis named a top anti-Mafia prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, as president of the Vatican criminal court over the alleged financial wrongdoing.” Consider the murder and brutality of organized crime compared to still unproven financial malfeasance by those who stand accused by the Vatican.

“Thus, the ‘financial scandal’ has turned into an institutional crisis within the Vatican,” observed ACI Stampa

Pope Francis was upset that the raid was widely condemned. Although “no one believed that [head of the Vatican police, Domenico] Giani was responsible, nevertheless he was ‘embittered’ that he would be held responsible,” Fiorenza Sarzanini reported on Saturday, Oct. 12.

On Monday, Oct. 14, the Vatican announced Giani resigned. “Giani understood that he was being ordered to submit his resignation letter …. Was not Giani acting under orders to carry out the Oct. 1 raid”? Dr. Robert Moynihan observed.

As Pope Francis later told reporters during a Nov. 26 in-flight press conference, “I signed the authorization.” He also told the press: “The director of the AIF is in suspension because … the AIF [failed] in its duty to control the crimes of others.”

A former AIF official told the Financial Times that the agency “had raised multiple financial crime cases with the Vatican’s prosecutors over several years, but these were never taken further …. ‘Perhaps there were some people who didn’t want prosecutions to happen.’’”

In an Oct. 23 statement, the AIF Board of Directors “reaffirms its full faith and trust in the professional competence and honorability of its [suspended director, Tommaso Di Ruzza] and, moreover, commends him for the institutional work carried out in the handling of this particular case.”

On Nov. 18, a Vatican statement said Rene Bruelhart, a Swiss lawyer and president of the AIF, would leave because his five-year term had expired. “I resigned,” Bruelhart told Philip Pullela of Reuters shortly after the announcement was made.

During the Nov. 26 press conference, Pullella asked Pope Francis: “What can you do or say to guarantee to the international financial community, and to the faithful in general who are called to contribute to Peter’s Pence, that the Vatican will not return to be considered a pariah?” Pope Francis ignored the subject of Peter’s Pence and addressed the issue of the “international financial community” by noting that the Vatican is a “sovereign country” and therefore has the right to go its own way.

Pullella pressed the pope: “And a guarantee for the faithful that…?” Pope Francis again ignored the subject of misusing donations intended for charity  He had already evaded another reporter’s question about the “correct” use of Peter’s Pence funds by defending his use of the money for business investments.

On Feb. 18, 2020, documents and computers from the office and residence of Msgr. Alberto Perlasca were seized because of his involvement in the Secretariat’s “financial investments,” the Vatican announced. Recall that Perlasca had signed the agreement with Torzi only after asking his bosses to authorize the deal. In fact, eight months later in July 2019, Pope Francis appointed Perlasca as Promoter of Justice at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature; chief prosecutor of the Church’s highest ecclesiastical court.

PRIESTS AND LAITY PUNISHED BUT NOT PRELATES 

On May 3, 2020, Crux reported that all five of the suspended employees had been fired “and, no less, just hours before Francis would use his daily livestreamed Mass on the Italian Labor Day and the Church’s feast of St. Joseph the Worker to pray for workers’ rights.”  Perlasca had been dismissed the Catholic News Agency reported.

“The firings came directly from Francis …. To date, no evidence has been produced to suggest that [these] employees were guilty of wrongdoing. In any event, the deal for which they were being investigated had been approved by superiors in the Secretariat of State and, eventually, the pope himself,” Crux noted.

Msgr. Perlasca had told the Financial Times:  “‘I would like to emphasize that the operation had been regularly approved by Superiors, including the Holy Father.” 

“Veteran Italian Vatican journalist Gianfranca Soldati noted the coincidence that the firings came just after the three-year anniversary of the unexplained sacking of another Vatican employee, Eugene Hasler, who was for years a senior official in the Government of the Vatican City State. On March 28, 2017, he was fired personally by Pope Francis, and ever since he’s been asking for an investigation to be opened to show what he did wrong.”

Libero Milone, former chairman of a global accounting firm, was appointed to the newly created post of Auditor General in 2015. He was given “full autonomy and independence” to investigate the finances of all Vatican departments.  In June 2017, the Vatican stated Milone resigned but gave no reason. Milone told reporters he had been “forced to step down with trumped-up accusations.” “Evidently, they didn’t want me to report some things I’d seen,” Milone said.

Giulio Mattietti was a 20-year employee of the IOR and had risen to deputy director, the No. 3 highest official. The Vatican provided no reason why the “respected” Mattietti was not only fired but also had been “escorted outside the Vatican City State” in November 2017.

When Giuseppe Profiti “was put to a Vatican trial in 2017 in another financial scandal pivoting on Rome’s papally owned pediatric hospital Bambino Gesu, a central figure, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, former Secretariat of State under Pope Benedict XVI, not only wasn’t charged, he was never called as a witness,” noted Crux.

As regards the London property, “what we know with certainty is that [the deal was approved] by first then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Angelo Becciu, and later Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra … Ultimately the deal also had to be okayed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Yet, to date, Becciu, Peña Parra and Parolin have not been charged or, so far as we know, named as a witness in the unfolding legal process,” Crux reported.

Torzi jailed 

On June 5, 2020, Gianluigi Torzi voluntarily appeared in the Vatican to give testimony about his role in the resale of the London property. He was arrested and held captive for ten days “charged with various counts of extortion, embezzlement, aggravated fraud and money-laundering.”

Torzi was granted bail and released from the Vatican jail on June 15. The prosecutors allowed his release, the Vatican said, because he had cooperated with their investigation.

“Contracts, banking records and financial documents seen by the Financial Times … signed off by some of the most senior officials in the Catholic Church … cast doubt on the Vatican’s official narrative that the controversy surrounding its purchase of 60 Sloane Avenue was the work of Mr. Torzi and a handful of junior administrators.”

Vallejo Balda and Chaouqui jailed 

On Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, Msgr. Lucio Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian public relations executive, were arrested and held in jail in Vatican City. Like Torzi, they had been told only that they were summoned to the Vatican to be questioned.

Both had served on a commission to study Vatican finances. They were accused of being the source of the disclosures in Nuzzi’s Merchants in the Temple and Fittipaldi’s Avarice: Papers that Reveal Wealth, Scandals and Secrets in the Church of Francis.

Also like Torsi, “Chaouqui was released Monday because she was cooperating with the investigation.”

The arrests were “an attempt to divert attention from the actual issues covered in my book, that are based on documents,” said Nuzzi

Pope Francis said he gave the Vatican prosecutor the “concrete charges” against five defendants to be tried by the Vatican. Three defendants, Vallejo Balda, his secretary Nicola Maio and Chaouqui, were “accused of forming a criminal organization” with the intention of “disclosing information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the [Vatican City] State.”

Nuzzi and Fittipaldi were accused of “urging and exerting pressure, particularly on Msgr. Vallejo,” to obtain the documents, another bizarre allegation. Nuzzi’s and Fittipaldi’s decades of experience in disclosing Vatican corruption make them the go-to journalists for Vatican whistle-blowers.

The trial began on November 24, 2015. Nothing in the books was denied.

On July 7, 2016, a Vatican tribunal found Vallejo Balda guilty of leaking the documents. Having already served 8 months, his was sentenced to an additional 10 months in prison. Chaouqui was found guilty of conspiring in the disclosure but was not charged with the actual leak of the documents “given the lack of evidence.” Maio was absolved of any wrongdoing. The tribunal admitted that the Vatican had no jurisdiction over Fittipaldi and Nuzzi.

Wesolowski was not jailed

Compare the imprisonment of Vallejo Balda, Chaouqui and Torzi with how an archbishop, a sexual predator of poor boys, was treated by the Pope Francis.

Sometime in the summer of 2013, Pope Francis was presented with evidence that his ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, was sexually torturing the poorest boys in Santo Domingo. The Holy Father did not report these crimes to the local civil authorities. Instead, he secretly “whisked away” Wesolowski to Rome on Aug. 21, as reported by the New York Times. 

“This is the most terrible case that I have ever seen,” said Yeni Berenice Reynoso, National District prosecutor. “Wesolowski was abusing kids who were living in extreme poverty. He abused that poverty and used that mechanism to approach children and take advantage of them for years ….  It’s very perverse,” said Reynoso.

The archbishop remained a free man in Rome for over a year.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Corriere della Serra reported that Wesolowski was arrested by order of the pope because “there was a serious risk that the ambassador would be arrested on Italian territory at the request of the Dominican authorities and then extradited.” Wesolowski had more than 100,000 computer files of pornography stored on his laptop. “Some were downloaded from the internet and others the victims themselves were forced to take …. Images show youngsters aged between 13 and 17 being humiliated for the camera, filmed naked and forced to have sexual relations with each other or with adults. … Wesolowski is suspected of belonging to an international network that extends well beyond what has emerged so far.” (emphasis mine)

Wesolowski was put under “house arrest” and, as the BBC reported on August 11, 2015, Wesolowski was free to “walk around the Vatican, around its 40 hectares [~100 acres].”

Wesolowski’s body was discovered on August 28 in his Vatican quarters. His sudden death was described as a heart attack by the Vatican. “Many believe that Wesolowski could be the repository of untold secrets, which could, perhaps, be harmful to many powerful characters.,” il Giornale.it reported.

MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL

Speaking to the Italian media, Cardinal Becciu put the blame on Torzi. He “will have to answer for a specific crime for which he alone is responsible and the Vatican will continue as before.”

“The greatest bombshell [in his book] is that the Vatican is still working as a profitable merchant bank,” Fittipaldi said in 2015.

In 2012, the IOR purchased property in Hungary – the Budapest Exchange Palace – for development and resale. According to one of the sellers, the IOR originally said it would commit €47 million euros to the project but only delivered €14 million.

One March 13, 2020, a Maltese court authorized the seizure of €29.5 million in assets.belonging to the IOR. The judgement by the Maltese court represents the balance of the investment owed by the IOR and ‘material damages” suffered by the sellers.  “The IOR has itself filed a still ongoing suit” against the sellers claiming “that its investment committee was misled” by the directors of the companies involved in the sale.

Using charitable donations for dubious investments

“The Secretariat of State used Peter’s Pence donations in part to invest tens of millions of dollars in the Centurion Global Fund and is reported to be the source of at least two-thirds of the fund’s assets …. The Centurion investment fund does its business with an unlikely pair of banks: both linked to a billion-dollar Venezuelan money laundering and bribery scandal,” stated the Catholic News Agency.

At the end of 2018, the Centurion fund “had lost 4.61%, that’s about €2 million. And most of that ended up in executives’ pockets by way of commissions,” per the National Catholic Register.

Enrico Crasso is head of the Centurion Global Fund. Grasso is also a long-time manager of finances of the Secretariat of State and the Peter’s Pence funds, according to Corriere della Sera .

The IDI

Matthew O’Brien, “a U.S.-based Catholic financier who has campaigned for financial reform in the Church,” wrote two articles (here and here) about charitable donations given to “a scandal-plagued dermatology hospital” controlled by the Vatican.

The Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI) healthcare group was owned by the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, referred to by its Italian acronym ‘PICFIC’. In 2013, “Italian prosecutors charged PICFIC priest Father Franco Decaminada and his collaborators with stealing tens of millions of euros through fraud and embezzlement. Decaminada and his collaborators were ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison.”

PICFIC “retains indirect ownership of the IDI  in partnership with the Secretariat of State” through a non-profit foundation and a limited liability subsidiary. “Together they own and operate the IDI and its affiliates.” The IDI’s “outstanding debt from the insolvency period” was of over 53 million euros.

“Cardinal Pietro Parolin requested a $25 million grant from the [Philadelphia-based] Papal Foundation in June 2017, on behalf of Pope Francis, in order to help it bail out the IDI.” In August, the Foundation sent $8 million to the Secretariat of State and a second installment of $5 million was sent in January of 2018. “The Papal Foundation has not stated publicly whether it has sent the final installment of the grant.”

“The consensus among the lawyers, economist, accountants and prelates” with whom Crux consulted is that “the hospital is likely to remain a financial hole … as long as the current management and the Vatican is involved.”

Other financial scandals

Fittipaldi also disclosed that an audit of the Vatican museums and pharmacy suggested either systematic theft or fraud.

On June 30, 2020, “Vatican prosecutors ordered the seizure of documents and computers from the administrative offices of St. Peter’s Basilica in an apparently new investigation into financial irregularities in the Holy See.”

Pope Francis “also named a special commissioner to run the basilica …. The commissioner [had] previously conducted an investigation into financial irregularities within the Sistine Chapel Choir that led to the early retirement of the choirmaster last year,” according to the Associated Press.

Crux wondered whether this investigation “follows the same script as so many other Vatican inquests into financial scandals, which is to identify a handful of Italian laity, either external consultants or direct employees, and blame it all on them, thereby insulating cardinals and other senior clergy from culpability.” 

THE VATICAN WILL NOT CHANGE

The Vatican says its raison d’etre is to preach the Gospel. It’s government is called the Holy See and its dictator is addressed as Holy Father. However, as long as the Vatican and its leaders remain unaccountable to any law enforcement except themselves, scandals will be business as usual.

Betty Clermont is author of The NeoCatholics – Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.  

 

 

 

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