Cardinal Pell’s timely return to Rome fuels rumors of his restoration as finance sheriff

His return coincides with the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, whose name has recently been mentioned in connection with numerous questions about church funds.

Australian Cardinal George Pell waves as he arrives at Rome's international airport in Fiumicino, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Pell took a leave of absence from his job in 2017 to stand trial in his native Australia on historic child sexual abuse charges, for which he was ultimately acquitted. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Reforming the Vatican’s tangled finances, once the subject of hushed conversations in hallways, has gone mainstream. Every day, media reports shine more light on the intricate dealings of church officials, revealing troubling relationships and conflicting interests.

After years of scandals and sensationalistic tell-all books about insider schemes, the powers inside the Vatican seem to realize that the global credibility of the Catholic Church is at stake.

“The financial reform of the Vatican has reached an acute crisis point,” said Matthew O’Brien, an American investment adviser who has long advocated financial reforms in the church.

It’s at this moment that Cardinal George Pell has returned to Rome after being acquitted of charges of sexual abuse of minors in his native country of Australia. Before his trial, Pell, 79, helmed the Vatican’s financial reform effort as Prefect for the Economy, a post created by Pope Francis in 2014 to oversee all of the institution’s financial dealings.

His return coincides with the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 72, whose name has recently been mentioned in connection with numerous questions about church funds, from investments in prime real-estate in downtown London to large transactions seemingly benefitting his family and associates.

In his role as reformer, Pell had come to be perceived as a bulldog who often confronted Becciu. In a recent press conference, Becciu told reporters that Pell had once accused him of being “dishonest” in the presence of the pope.

Reports in the Italian media have hinted that Becciu played a role in Pell’s recall to Australia in 2017 to stand trial. Without offering evidence, the reports have alleged that Becciu, then  sostituto, the equivalent of a chief of staff to the pope, sent more than $825,000 to Pell’s accusers, two former choir boys and to Australian dioceses.

At about the same time, the auditor general at the Vatican, Libero Milone, was unceremoniously arrested by Vatican law enforcement, which was led at the time by Domenico Giani, a close associate of Becciu’s.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu speaks during a press conference on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Vatican City. RNS photo by Claire Giangravé

The accusations in the media were enough to lead Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, to appeal in an interview on Oct. 5 with the Australian daily Financial Review for an investigation of Becciu’s transactions by an outside agency.

“In a statement on Wednesday (Oct. 7), Becciu reiterated the “absolute falseness” of the news reports and denied taking part in any “illicit activity whatsoever.”

In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo, Monsignor Giovanni Angelo Becciu presides over a Eucharistic liturgy at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. The powerful head of the Vatican’s saint-making office, Cardinal Becciu has resigned from the post and renounced his rights as a cardinal amid a financial scandal that has reportedly implicated him indirectly. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

On Tuesday (Oct. 6), Pope Francis held a private audience with Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, the papal representative to Australia. Vatican officials told Religion News Service that it is common practice for papal nunzios to brief the pontiff, pointing out that Australia recently loosened its COVID-19 restrictions.

But sources inside the Vatican say that Francis brought him to Rome to quiz Yllana, who is close to Becciu, about the alleged bribe of the plaintiff in Australia.”

Pell’s timely return has been described as a “coincidence” by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whose office said the Australian prelate was only coming to Rome to pick up personal effects he’d left behind before his trial began. But with Becciu’s resignation, speculation has begun that Pell may have returned to finish the job he began.

“Before Cardinal Pell returned to Australia to face the now-discredited legal charges against him, he laid out a thoughtful and comprehensive framework for financial reform,” O’Brien said. “This framework was never adopted, and the revelations about Cardinal Becciu and the Secretariat of State’s ‘off books’ investment ventures are proving the folly of delay.”

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Pell’s proposals are now becoming a reality, though years late. The Vatican finances are now being streamlined under the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), and the purchase of goods and services by Roman Curia, the bureaucracy of the church, has been placed under supervision.

Meanwhile, Pell’s replacement as the head of the Secretariat for the Economy is the Rev. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, who has been praised as an effective leader for reform. The office struggled to remain relevant once Pell left, but the fact that Guerrero is a simple priest, not a cardinal, is in itself seen as an effort by Pope Francis to promote accountability; cardinals “are often untouchable inside their own republics,” one observer noted, while priests can be more easily moved.

Under Guerrero, too, the Secretariat for the Economy has been given control over the Vatican’s data processing center. This means that its prefect will no longer have to ask other Vatican offices for financial transaction reports but can access them directly.

Amid battling prelates and whirling scandals, there are hopes of a new era within Vatican finances. But rumors of future revelations that threaten the reputation of the Catholic Church continue to loom on the horizon. In these days, the Vatican will consider whether the recent investigations into Becciu will lead to a trial.

According to O’Brian, Vatican reform cannot hinge only on the role of cardinals or priests but must include the active participation of lay people.

“Pope Francis needs to embrace more fully the vision of the Second Vatican Council and involve in the Vatican’s financial management members of the lay faithful who have established track-records of professional expertise, demonstrated moral character, and independence of status that mitigates against any conflicts of interest in stewarding the resources of the Church,” he said.

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