In a further sign that the Catholic Church is undergoing a painful period of purification, a former Vatican cardinal, who was in charge of the Church’s worldwide missionary activity under John Paul II, is under investigation for corruption.
Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who served from 2001 to 2006 as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, is being investigated as part of a wider corruption probe involving some senior Italian government officials and the organization of the G-8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, last year.
At issue is the selling of a four-story building in 2004, belonging to the cardinal’s congregation, to Italy’s then-minister for infrastructure and transport, Pietro Lunardi.
Sepe is accused of costing the property at €2 million (about $2.5 million) lower than its market value in return for Lunardi funding the restoration of Church property through the coffers of his transport ministry.
The truth is expected to emerge within a month or two, after questioning by Perugia’s chief prosecutor.
Cardinal Sepe has protested his innocence and said he is “serene” in the face of the allegations. He told his archdiocese in a letter that he has “always acted conscientiously, with the good of the Church being my sole objective.”
In the meantime, the Vatican is standing by the cardinal, saying he has always worked for the Church “in an intense and generous manner” and adding that it hopes the truth will “be fully and rapidly clarified, so as to eliminate all shadow of doubt regarding both him personally and Church institutions.”
The 67-year-old cardinal, a popular figure in his native Naples, has long been regarded as something of a networker and a fixer, playing a key role in arranging celebrations for the Church’s Jubilee Year in 2000.
His achievements led to John Paul II elevating him to cardinal in 2001. But rumours have also long circulated about malpractice and personal ambition, and Benedict XVI took the unusual step of removing him from the Vatican in 2006 and sending him to Naples.
Whether or not Cardinal Sepe is guilty of wrongdoing, the investigation will help clear the air of corruption which has hung over a small number of prelates who served as senior Vatican officials under John Paul II.
One of John Paul II’s admitted weaknesses was that he paid too little attention to the running of the Vatican, and left senior officials very much to their own devices. A few have long been accused of taking advantage of the lack of oversight and accountability.
In recent weeks, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was John Paul’s deputy for 15 years, has been the focus of allegations involving the Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ. The 82-year-old cardinal, who continues to be head of the College of Cardinals, is alleged to have taken money from the Order in return for favours — something he has so far not publicly confirmed or denied.
Although Benedict XVI has not commented publicly on these particular cases, he sees the sexual abuse scandal as an opportunity for cleansing the Church, and may also view these allegations in the same way.
Earlier this month, he called on priests to look upon the trial “as a summons to purification.” He also referred to the scandal as the work of the “enemy” — the Devil — who wishes to see the priesthood disappear “so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world.”
On Sunday, many noted the timeliness of an address in which he reminded priests not to seek “personal prestige and power”.
A priest who sees his ministry in these terms, he said, “does not truly love God and others, only himself and, paradoxically, ends up losing himself.”
Although a number of recent accusations have been unjust attacks and smears, not least on the Pope and now perhaps also on Cardinal Sepe, many are hoping that the pain of these disclosures and allegations will help to remove what the Pope, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, memorably once called the “filth” in the Church.
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