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Control of the Vatican: What’s at Stake

The Catholic Church is the only religion headquartered in an autonomous country. The sovereignty of the Holy See – the name of the government of both the Vatican City State and the worldwide Church – provides criminal and civil immunity from any other authority to Vatican residents and government officials. 

The Vatican has immense wealth. How it is earned, how it is spent, who profits remain hidden because it is shielded by self-rule. Vatican officials’ access to global financial markets is facilitated by its status as a sovereign city/state.  

As officials of an independent nation, a pope and his appointees have access to, and some influence in, many international organizations.

So there is much at stake in choosing the next pontiff, the absolute dictator of the Holy See. There will be another conclave some time after the cardinal/electors are able to safely convene when the pandemic has subsided. In a recent interview, Pope Francis indicated how long he expected his pontificate to last. Speaking about some routine medical tests, he said the doctors “were inclined to have me do a test every five years, but I told them: let’s do it annually. You never know,” he told a reporter for the Adnkronos news agency.

Also, two books were released this summer by Church insiders: The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates, by Edward Pentin and The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission by George Weigel.

Sovereign Immunity

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta is currently being tried in absentia in Argentina. The bishop is accused by prosecutors of “’aggravated continuous sexual abuse’ of two seminarians as well as fraud and mismanagement of funds. He denies the charges,” noted the Catholic News Agency.

Zanchetta was invited by Pope Francis to live and work in the Vatican in December 2017 even though the bishop was “forced to resign” as head of the diocese of Oran the previous summer due to “numerous complaints about economic mismanagement,” the Argentine press reported. Nevertheless, the pope appointed Zanchetta as an official of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). APSA manages the Vatican’s financial assets and acts as the central treasury.

Pope Francis also protected Msgr. Carlo Capella, a diplomat posted in 2016 to the Vatican’s Washington D.C. embassy. Capella was recalled to the Vatican after the U.S. State Department asked the Holy See to lift Capella’s diplomatic immunity in 2017 so that he could be tried in the U.S. for possession of child pornography. The request was denied. Capella was also the subject of a Canadian warrant accusing him of “accessing, possessing and distributing child pornography.”

Capella was tried and convicted of possession of child pornography inside the Vatican and given a five-year sentence of confinement in the Vatican City barracks, no doubt better than an American or Canadian prison and no one to verify that the sentence is being carried out.

Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican department responsible for handling reports of clerical sex abuse, advised the Diocese of Lyon in 2014 not to report a sexual predator whose case he had studied to the French authorities. Father Bernard Preynat was accused of abusing as many as 45 boy scouts. Pope Francis named Ladaria as head of the CDF in July 2017.

In May 2018, Ladaria was summoned to testify in a French court in a case against Cardinal Philippe Barbarin and six other officials of the Archdiocese of Lyon who were being prosecuted for allegedly failing to report the accusations against Preynat to the police.  The pope elevated Ladaria to cardinal in June.

In October 2018, Pope Francis invoked diplomatic immunity on Ladaria’s behalf. The court summons “was not valid” since Ladaria was “a minister of Vatican City State and is protected under international law,” according to the Catholic News Agency. Barbarin’s trial proceeded without him.

A confidential dossier accusing Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, Vatican ambassador to the Dominican Republic, of sex abuse of poor street boys in Santo Domingo was sent to Pope Francis “sometime in July” 2013. The pope dismissed Wesolowski before the allegations became public. The ambassador returned to Rome where he remained a free man.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Il 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 was put under house arrest and remained free within the Vatican City State. The archbishop died in August 2015 just before his Vatican trial was scheduled to begin.

Sovereign Immunity and U.S. Lawsuits

The Vatican is generally exempt from lawsuits under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. In all the following cases, the suits were either dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity or the plaintiffs ran out of time and/or money due to the repeated challenges mounted by the Holy See’s lawyers and their vast resources.

Alperin v. Vatican Bank was a class action suit brought on behalf of “all Serbs, Jews, and former Soviet Union citizens (and their heirs and beneficiaries), who suffered at the hands of the Ustaše,” the Nazi allies who controlled Croatia during World War II. The plaintiffs sought restitution from the Ustaše Treasury that, according to the U.S. State Department, had been transferred illicitly to the Vatican “in order to further the goals of the Ustaše regime in exile and fund the Vatican ratline,” according  to Wikipedia. Alperin v. Vatican Bank “was dismissed in 2007 on the basis of sovereign immunity.”

Dale v. Holy See: In 1998, Martin Frankel “embarked on a scheme to utilize the Roman Catholic Church as a front organization to a massive insurance fraud scheme.” Frankel later pled guilty to criminal charges. “The receivers for various insurance companies affected by Frankel’s scam filed suit against a variety of individuals and entities involved, including both Msgr. Emilio Colagiovanni and the Vatican,” as quoted from the FindLaw website. In 2006, a U.S. Court of Appeals “remanded this case to the district court for further proceedings” but the plaintiffs eventually gave up the effort due to the extensive time, effort and expense involved in pursuing the case further.  

There have been at half a dozen lawsuits brought against the Holy See by survivors of clerical sex abuse in the past decade.  Bishops who transferred known predators from parish to parish, looked the other way or covered up these crimes are hired and fired by the head of government of the Holy See i.e. the pope. Nevertheless, all these lawsuits have failed up to now.

In November 2020, “four accusers of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick filed a lawsuit against the Vatican, arguing it should be held liable for allowing the now-disgraced cleric to serve in multiple positions in New York and New Jersey when it knew of numerous allegations of sexual abuse against him. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, where McCarrick served as archbishop from the mid-1980s until 2000 …. Three of the plaintiffs were parishioners who allege McCarrick abused them as youths in the 1980s. The fourth is a priest who alleges McCarrick abused him at a beach house in New Jersey in the 1990s,” as reported by Crux news.

“The lawsuit characterizes the Holy See as a ‘vast enterprise’ that exerted total control over McCarrick, its employee, and had the sole authority to remove him but refused to do so because of its policy of keeping sexual abuse allegations secret,” noted Crux.

A Vast Enterprise

In December 2017, Pope Francis met with leaders of the Forum of Catholic-Inspired NGOs. The Forum’s role is “to strengthen the Catholic voice … in its advocacy before intergovernmental bodies specifically,” according to their website.

The meeting marked “the extraordinary activity of the [Vatican] Secretariat of State in the diplomatic field” [including] “maintaining a primary role in carrying out” the Forum’s objectives, reported Andrea Gagliarducci. “Many officials of the Secretariat took part in his meeting, as well as all of the Vatican ambassadors accredited to multilateral organizations – the only, justified absence was that of Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, Holy See Permanent Observer to the UN in Geneva, who was in Buenos Aires taking part in a meeting of the World Trade Organization.”

In June 2018, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, was invited to participate in the Bilderberg Conference along with 131 other invitees. The Bilderberg Group’s agenda is defined “as bolstering a consensus around free market Western capitalism and its interests around the globe” according to Wikipedia.

“The cardinal’s participation in the Bilderberg Group could be part of a strategy of dialogue the Holy See is engaging in with the small influential elite group,” noted Gagliarducci in a Catholic News Agency article. “The aura of hidden power of the group comes from the fact invitees are always very influential people, and the conversations are confidential. It is obvious that the meeting generates networks and relations of mutual trust among a small group of people with great decisional power,” Gagliarducci wrote on his own MondayVatican website.

In January 2019. Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, led a panel at the Davos World Economic Forum. “The Forum strives in all its efforts to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance,” according to its website.  

So the Vatican’s importance as a participant in global financial markets is recognized by the elite business community.   

Fortunately, some excellent reporters have provided us with partial information regarding the depth and breadth of the Vatican’s hidden financial empire and, as such, another vital insight as to what’s at stake in the next conclave.

A hint of the magnitude of their assets is that just two Vatican Swiss bank accounts hold “as much as €7 billion,” reported Edward Pentin in July 2019. These bank accounts are managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) which oversees the Vatican’s investment portfolio, some commercial real estate and “large amounts of unregistered cash in offshore accounts,” according to Pentin. “Sources say only few officials within APSA know the true extent of the Vatican’s foreign real estate portfolio, which is held largely ‘off the books.’” Pentin wrote.

APSA’s investments are “hidden behind layer after layer of false fronts and holding companies,” noted John F. Pollard in Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy (p 149).

APSA is also the Vatican’s treasury and central bank. It deals in currencies, gold bullion and gold coins reported Emiliano Fittipaldi in 2014.

“APSA has accounts and deposits of its own in central banks all over the world: the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Deutsche Bundesbank, the Bank of Italy, the Bank for International Settlements, and others,” noted Sandro Magister, quoting from a report by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s financial monitors.

The Vatican Bank “has financial relations with more than a hundred countries,” stated Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena. A Moneyval report confirmed that there are “more than forty banks in Europe, in the United States, in Australia, and in Japan [having] relationships of ‘correspondence’ with the Vatican Bank, permitting it to operate all over the world through them,” Magister stated.

The Vatican also has financial institutions in the Cayman Islands  and the Turks and Caicos. Both locations are known as havens for off-shore banking secrecy. 

The above explains why the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See has a “Political and Economic Officer” as stated on its official website.

International Relations

The Catholic Church is the only religion that can make treaties with other sovereign states called concordats. These agreements can protect the financial interests of the Church like the ownership of real estate and maintaining the secrecy of investments and bank accounts in countries where these rights don’t already exist, the Concordat Watch group explained. However, even without a concordat, in some countries like the U.S. religions are guaranteed financial secrecy and tax exemptions. “In terms of their finances, religious institutions can function as unregulated on-shore tax havens subsidized by taxpayers” noted Concordat Watch.

Cardinal Parolin addressed a conference titled “The Holy See’s Agreements with States” in March 2019. “In concordats, the Holy See aims to obtain a civil status that’s as appropriate as possible to guaranteeing its needs within the shared frame of the right to religious freedom and identity,” he said. The treaties are aimed, among other rights, at addressing the “concrete potential to service the churches in the states,” the cardinal stated as quoted on the Crux website.

Concordats have allowed the Vatican “to carve out its autonomy and freedom,” noted the Crux reporter, Claire Giangrave. 

Sometimes there is push-back. In October 2019, the Movement for a Secular Croatia, the Protagoras NGO and the Atheists and Agnostics of Croatia demanded an end to the “unacceptable” and “corrupt” concordat with the Vatican. “At the heart of the protest was anger over the opaque allocation of public money to Church institutions and organizations, as well as the contravention of the principle of State secularism,” reported NOVENA news.

The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 183 other states. 

The Holy See is a member of numerous international groups such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, according to Wikipedia’s “Foreign relations of the Holy See.” Also listed is the Holy See’s permanent observer status in 19 organizations such as the United Nations, Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Organization of American States (OAS), the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In November 2017, Pope Francis created a new third section to his Secretariat of State to oversee the diplomatic corps. The purpose is to “have a Church that is diplomatically more active,” according to the National Catholic Reporter. (The first section of the Secretariat manages the Vatican bureaucracy. The second section “deals with the political aspects of the pope’s embassies,” noted Sandro Magister.)

Internationally, the Vatican has been “active” in repressing women’s access to healthcare.

 “The Holy See’s modus operandi has been to impose its conservative social ideology at the UN via relentless pressure – evident ever since it gained semi-official standing there in 1964 …. They have the right to speak, reply and circulate documents in the General Assembly, as well as take part in international conferences with all the privileges of a state, including the right to vote,” former Washington Post reporter and editor Joanne Omang wrote in her article, “Playing Hardball Against Women’s Rights: The Holy See at the UN.” “That means real power. Other religions or nongovernmental organizations must collar delegates in hallways and restrooms to make their points,” she wrote.

 “They have their eyes on the prize, which is getting reproductive health off the global agenda,” said Alex Marshall, chief of UNFPA’s Services Branch, about his experience with the Holy See’s representatives. “They never stop, and they never give up,” he observed.

 “Various modern techniques of human reproduction [including contraception] do not respect the full dignity of the woman” Pope Francis’ appointee to the UN, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, told a UN assembly.  

Archbishop Jurkovic, appointed by Pope Francis as his representative to the UN in Geneva, spoke on May 25, 2018, at a World Health Organization assembly. Jurkovic was “immensely concerned” about the W.H.O. being part of the UN’s Global Abortion Policies database that summarizes every country’s laws and policies concerning abortion in order “to improve countries’ accountability for the protection of women and girls’ health and human right,” Crux noted.

Cardinal Parolin addressed the UN on Sept. 27, 2019, as regards the UN’s “Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Parolin criticized the inclusion of terms like “sexual and reproductive health-care services” and “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” reported the National Catholic Register.

Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2020, via a video message. “Unfortunately, some countries and international institutions are promoting abortion as one of the so-called ‘essential services’ provided in the humanitarian response to the pandemic,” the pontiff lamented.

On Nov. 26, 2020, Pope Francis repeated his equating all abortions, even to save the life of the mother, as “hiring hitman to resolve a problem,” in regard to the Argentine Congress’ consideration of a bill to make abortion “legal, safe and free” across the nation.

The Next Conclave

Whoever controls the Vatican can grant residents and officials civil and criminal immunity. They will have power over a global and opaque financial enterprise. They can direct officials to influence international groups with their own social conservative ideology.

“The real power is the invisible one. And there is indeed a deep Church that functions as a deep state, made up of prelates with a specific influence in world affairs,” Gagliarducci wrote in his Nov. 30, 2020, column.

“Business interests surround the powerful Vatican bureaucracy” stated Gian Marco Chiocci, the Adnkronos reporter and author of the Pope Francis interview published Oct. 30, 2020. 

I believe Mr. Chiocci is correct.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.

One Response

  1. Emmett Coyne asked me to post his comment since he is having some computer difficulties. His insights and additional information are much appreciated. Betty Clermont

    “In my book, as a Roman Catholic priest, I rejected two things: the devil as a personal entity and the Roman Church as a political entity.

    The devil is in the details. While I spoke in generalities of how the Church lost its moral authority by clinging to a political state like the powers of this world, Betty Clermont nails the devilish details that render the institution morally compromised. And they are legion.

    “You cannot serve God and mammon.” But the Roman church follows the money, rendering it a corporation more concerned about increasing the bottom line rather than being vulnerable as a moral force.

    She had been underscoring the deep church as enunciated by this quote in her essay: “The real power is the invisible one. And there is indeed a deep Church that functions as a deep state, made up of prelates with a specific influence in world affairs.” Betty Clermont has doggedly detailed the deep church of its manifold attempts to subvert transparent reckoning with problematic issues. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, anything more than this comes from evil.” The powers of this world equivocate to protest its power. The Roman church follows their lead. If it were a moral entity, it would be transparent and face issues directly, even if embarrassing and detrimental. Yet it mimics the powers of this world to preserve power.

    Catholics, right and left, do not critique the institution as a political power. It accepts the institution’s assertion of being a political power. Clermont is David against Goliath. But her slingshot is direct.

    The deep church denies women an equal voice, despite Paul’s affirmation there is “neither male or female…but all are equal.” At Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out upon all the people. Particularly. It seeks to control women’s reproductive issues.

    “Various modern techniques of human reproduction [including contraception] do not respect the full dignity of the woman” Pope Francis’ appointee to the UN, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, told a UN assembly.” Hard to imagine an Archbishop Bernadita would assert such a bald statement. The deep church continues to suppress the voice and wisdom of women. Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman who asserts herself when other male disciples sought to silence her, she stood her ground, Jesus’ response was to embrace, “O woman, great is your faith.”

    The Roman leadership, as Betty notes, is dictatorial. All the talk of collegiality means only males, and particularly, supposedly celibate males. Betty Clermon and ‘uppity’ woman, like the Syrophoencian woman, won’t be getting a phone call from Francis.”

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