Pope Francis is cleaning up Vatican bureaucracy

Inside the Holy See, there is a sense of apprehension similar to that found after the appointment of a crusading new chief executive

Share

Seven months after ascending the throne of Saint Peter, Pope Francis is in the midst of a crusade against the sins of Vatican City.

Since succeeding Benedict XVI, Francis has publicly sought to transform the tone of his office, extending surprise olive branches to everyone from gays and lesbians to professed atheists. But much more quietly, Vatican officials and observers say, the new pontiff has also begun to alter the atmosphere inside the Holy See, taking steps to shed light on the notoriously opaque Vatican Curia.

Before Benedict stepped down, documents leaked to the Italian news media detailed a lurid opera of rivalries and corruption inside the sprawling bureaucracy of 2,900 clerics and lay functionaries operating in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica. Reform is seen as key to restoring the faith of the world's 1 billion Catholics in the Vatican's administration.

Observers say it is too early to gauge the depth or success of the pope's internal reform effort. But even many longtime Vatican critics say the new pope has already begun to confront the problem head-on in a way his predecessor never did.

In a place where change is often measured in decades if not centuries, Francis personally moved to oust top officials of the secretive Vatican bank only days after a fresh corruption scandal engulfed the institution, officials say. Francis has also backed a push for greater financial transparency, while moving faster than many expected to replace Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone — Benedict's secretary of state, who once wielded the power of a vice pope. Bertone, who allegedly stymied efforts to clean up Vatican City, was seen by many observers as a big part of the Holy See's problem.

More reforms are coming. Two Vatican officials with direct knowledge of the situation said the pope is preparing to consolidate the Curia's myriad operations, with the aim of reducing the size of the bureaucracy. Francis has recently suggested that clerics should focus on their home dioceses rather than angle for prestigious postings in the Holy See. His new advisory board of eight cardinals from around the globe is seen as a counterweight to the power of Vatican-based authorities.

“Is this going to mean real change? We do not yet know,” said Massimo Teodori, a former Italian senator and longtime critic of the Holy See who penned a tome titled “The Greedy Vatican.” “But something may be happening. There have been announcements and pronouncements, and under this pope, the power of the Curia around Cardinal Bertone is already no more.”

Inside the Vatican, a sense of apprehension similar to that of company management after the arrival of a crusading new chief executive has taken root. Bishops who were once chatty with journalists have clammed up. And after Bertone's exit, the question floating around the ancient walls of the city-state is: Whose dome-hatted head could roll next?

Francis is also feeling the beginnings of a backlash. Last week, two leading Italian commentators from the same camp as conservative members of the Curia unleashed a front-page tirade in the Foglio newspaper under the headline: “We don't like the new pope.” The outburst immediately led to the cancellation of both men's shows on the Italian Catholic radio station, Radio Maria.

Though their commentaries had largely targeted what they called the new pope's embrace of modernity and his Everyman approach to his lofty office, analysts here also read them as part of a pressure campaign against too much reform, too quickly.

“They know they can't openly attack his structural reforms, so they attack him for his doctrine, accusing him of relativism and hurting the stature of the office of the pope,” said Carlo Marroni, the Vatican correspondent for theMilan-based financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

Perhaps no single entity inside Vatican City has seen the light of change more than the Institute for Religious Works, also known as the Vatican bank.

Founded in its modern form during the 1940s, the bank became a clearinghouse for donations and charities while facilitating the banking needs of those engaged in church business as well as diplomatic missions to the Holy See. But the Vatican's fiercely guarded sovereignty and culture of secrecy also made the bank an ideal target for criminals, enveloping the institution in scandals involving Mafia cash and corrupt clerics.

Inside the circular 15th-century citadel and former prison that houses the Vatican bank, priests, nuns and laity from all corners of the globe lined up on a recent afternoon to conduct their business with multilingual tellers. A large wooden cross, framed pictures of Pope Francis, and ATMs with Latin-language options indicated that this was no ordinary bank.

But officials here insist it is trying to become one. Inside the former office of the bank's president, a team of 25 consultants is now laboring under a dark painting of the Crucifixion. The team from Promontory, a New York-based outfit specializing in regulatory policy and bank cleanups, arrived in July, with the mission of vetting every single account held by the Vatican bank's 19,000 clients.

To be sure, the process of bank reform began under Benedict. But it gained momentum only in late 2012, when the Vatican brought in Rene Brulhart, the Swiss consultant who helped clean up Liechtenstein's books, to take over the city-state's relatively new financial watchdog.

Under Francis, the march toward transparency appears to have accelerated.

In August, he issued a papal edict against money laundering, which translated into enactment of a law last week that gave real teeth to Brulhart's agency. Last month, the bank released its first ever financial report (it is doing quite well, making $117 million last year, or four times more than in 2011. This year's number is projected to be substantially lower partly because of the costs of the transparency campaign).

More important, Vatican officials say, Francis has become personally involved in the bank's operations.

In June, for instance, Italian authorities arrested Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a senior Vatican accountant who lived a lavish lifestyle and allegedly used his account at the Vatican bank for illicit deals. Scarano, who denies wrongdoing and claims he actually tried to warn Vatican officials about internal wrongdoing and corruption, additionally stands accused of plotting with an unscrupulous secret service agent to shuttle nearly $27 million in undeclared funds from Switzerland to Italy.

The size of Scarano's deals — including a single withdrawal of 560,000 euros, or $766,000 — made it hard to believe that the bank's directors had failed to notice the transactions. Within days of the case going public, both the bank's director and deputy director had resigned. Or at least that was the public story. Three Vatican officials said Francis had forced them out.

“He blazes a trail; everything we're doing now is because he wants it,” said Ernst Von Freyberg, a German financier who arrived in February to help clean up the bank and who is now the acting director.

As more light is cast on the Vatican books, however, the scandals are likely to get worse. Last month, Reuters reported that Vatican regulators had flagged suspicious transactions being made from the diplomatic accounts held at the Vatican bank by several high-risk countries, including Iran.

Officials say that those accounts are now being investigated and that new procedures — standard among major international banks — are being put in place to ensure that more information is collected on clients and on large transactions. Technically, only organizations and individuals related to the Catholic Church or Vatican City can maintain accounts at the bank, but officials are now uncovering accounts that either should have been closed or never opened. Thus far, officials say, reviews have produced at least six instances of possible money laundering and a number of suspicious accounts are being closed, referred to Vatican judicial authorities or both.

Rome prosecutors say they are optimistic the bank's new pledge of transparency will end the days when Vatican officials refused to cooperate fully in criminal investigations, believing they answered only to a higher power.

Meanwhile, critics say that while real changes may be afoot at the Vatican bank, reform must still expand to other Vatican agencies involved in contracts and financial issues.

“I do think we are seeing real change at the Vatican bank, but now we need to see those reforms built on and expanded elsewhere in the Vatican,” said Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of “Inside the Vatican.”

“That will be the real indication of the legacy Francis will leave on this question.”

Copyright Washington Post 2013.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Financial Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Financial Analyst is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Secretary

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This major European Intellectual Propert...

Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

£130 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher Jan 2015 - July...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: Calling black people 'coloured' removes part of their humanity

Yemisi Adegoke
 

Dippy the Diplodocus: The great exotic beast was the stuff of a childhood fantasy story

Charlie Cooper
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness