Despite strenuous efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up the Vatican's finances and introduce more transparency, the Holy See has been accused by a former senior Vatican official of internal corruption, nepotism, and cronyism.
The allegations, which appeared last week in an Italian television program, were revealed in letters that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then deputy governor of Vatican City State, had written to the Pope in which he cited examples of malpractice and complained of a smear campaign being waged against him.
During his two years in the post from 2009 to 2011, a position which included responsibility for managing much of the Vatican's infrastructure, Vigano had made significant progress in rooting out inefficiency.
Vigano gained a reputation as a very tough and effective administrator and in fact became so effective that he didn't wish to leave his post, hoping instead to be appointed head of his office — a position that usually leads to being appointed Cardinal.
In a letter to the Pope dated April 4 last year, Viganò alleged that two funds were managed by a committee of Italian bankers who “looked after their own interests more than ours.”
In other correspondence, he highlighted that previous incompetence at the Vatican had caused officials to rack up losses of “50 to 60 percent,” and referred to one single financial transaction in December 2009 in which “they made us lose two and a half million dollars.”
He also wrote to the Pope asking not to be transferred from his position, saying it would provoke “much disorientation and discouragement in those who have believed it was possible to clean up so many situations of corruption and abuse of power that have been rooted in the management of so many departments.”
Vigano, who comes from close to the Italian-Swiss border, continued in his post until last October when he was appointed as the new apostolic nuncio (the Pope's official representative) to the United States.
In response to the Jan. 26 broadcast, the Vatican threatened to take legal action against the TV station, criticising the program for using “questionable journalistic methods” and reporting the complexities of the Vatican “in a superficial and biased manner.” But in its statement, the Vatican didn't deny the authenticity of the letters, nor did it deal specifically with any of Vigano's allegations.
Vatican sources say that Vigano's criticisms were taken seriously, and that Curial officials have already acted on some of his recommendations. Observers also argue that if the allegations were spurious, Vigano, who is a trained Vatican diplomat, would not have been promoted to one of the most prestigious positions in Vatican diplomacy.
Vigano's assertions that he was victim of a smear campaign, however, were deemed “indemonstrable” by an internal Vatican investigation.
The allegations of poor governance have led to finger-pointing in the Italian press, most notably at Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope's deputy. Vatican watchers are speculating how long he will remain as Vatican secretary of state — essentially head of the Holy See's executive branch.
At 77, he is already two years beyond the usual retiring age of cardinals. Although regarded as an excellent theologian and a priest with sound pastoral skills, his opponents have long doubted his suitability for the post which usually goes to a Vatican diplomat.
Moreover, they criticize him for appointing and putting forward a significant number of his friends and members of his own religious order — the Salesians — to senior positions in the Roman Curia and the Italian church.
Only last week, Bertone appointed a Salesian, Father Sergio Pellini, as director general of the Vatican Press and the Holy See’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. And soon the Pope is expected to appoint the Bishop of La Spezia — another friend of Bertone from Genoa (the cardinal was once archbishop there) — to the crucial patriarchal see of Venice.
But as a good friend of Benedict XVI since the days when they worked together at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope is said to be unlikely to ask Bertone to resign. Some observers even speculate that the Pope values his loyalty and trust to such an extent that he will keep him on as secretary of state until the Pontiff's death.
Still, the recent revelations, and the way they were handled, may lead to unfortunate misconceptions about the Vatican. The majority of Curial officials have sound reputations and moral integrity, and in recent years the Holy See has been successfully working to clean up what was once a shady past when it came to finance.
Over the past two years it has been striving to comply with European norms on money-laundering and terror financing.
This week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which maintains the so-called "white list" of countries that crack down on tax fraud, said the Vatican was heading in the right direction in being admitted to the list. And on the day the Vigano story broke, the Holy See ratified three U.N. Conventions intended to curb corrupt financial transactions.
The hope is that Vigano's whistle-blowing will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, leading to more severe discipline on Vatican officials when it comes to management and finance, and enabling the Holy See to properly clean house — a key objective of this pontificate.
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