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Cardinal Pell calls for more lay involvement in Vatican financial reform efforts

Lay men and women bring expertise and knowledge that the Vatican lacks, said Pope Francis' former financial reform czar.

Cardinal George Pell speaks during a virtual event organized by the Global Institute of Church Management, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Video screengrab

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinal George Pell, former secretary for the economy, praised Pope Francis’ ongoing financial reform efforts in an online conference on Thursday, while calling for more lay involvement.

“The Catholic people are entitled to honesty and efficiency,” Pell said at the online event (Jan. 14) organized by the Global Institute of Church Management.

“Financially I’m not sure the Vatican can continue on much longer losing money the way we’re losing money” he added, pointing to the financial pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and the church’s own financial mismanagement.

Pell was appointed in 2016 to head the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. In July of the following year, the cardinal returned to Australia to answer charges of sexually abusing minors. He was acquitted on appeal by the High Court of Australia in April 2020.

Francis’ reform efforts were largely stalled while Pell was on trial, just as a disastrous investment by the Vatican’s powerful Secretariat of State in prime real estate in London came to light. The investment resulted in a roughly $200 million loss for the Vatican.

In late December 2020, Pope Francis put the Secretariat of State’s financial assets under the jurisdiction of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, or APSA, which is already charged with handling the Vatican’s assets and real estate holdings.

Pell said that the decision marks “massive progress,” while underlining that the efficacy of the reforms will depend on how well they are received.

“The Vatican is not a big operation by world standards, so this centralization with APSA depends on how faithfully and competently it’s done,” he said.

Lay men and women, the cardinal said, must be placed in key positions within the Vatican and local dioceses to bring their expertise and knowledge to the table.

“I’ve been impressed by the number of wonderfully competent people who are prepared to give their services for nothing to the church, and we’ve got to be grateful to them and respect them and thank them,” Pell said.

He pointed to laypeople who helped the Vatican in the past, such as the Vatican’s former revisor general, Libero Milone, whom he described as a “very efficient, very competent and upright auditor,” but who had been unceremoniously ousted in 2017 by the now-disgraced Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who accused Milone of spying on Vatican employees. 

Pell also said he is “very hopeful” about recent lay appointments made by the pope, including six women at the Council for the Economy, set up to oversee the financial decisions of Vatican departments.

If more expert laypeople had been involved at the Vatican, Pell said, “a good deal of the present troubles, especially the London troubles, might even have been prevented.”

Some of the worst damage of the London deal, Pell suggested, was that the investment included funds from the pope’s global charity fund, known as Peter’s Pence, that comes from individual contributions from Catholics worldwide. The fund now “faces a gigantic challenge,” the cardinal said, of restoring faith in how the money is being used.

“I was never in favor of the majority of Peter’s Pence being used to balance books or minimize the deficit,” the cardinal said, adding that “it should never have been used for speculation.”