Crossed wires: Financial probe zeros in on Becciu-Pell allegations

Analysis

On Wednesday, the saga of the Vatican financial scandal took several dramatic turns. 

Australian authorities announced they had overestimated the amount of money sent from the Vatican to Australia over a period of six years by almost $2 billion. At the same time, they confirmed ongoing investigations into millions of dollars sent by Cardinal Angelo Becciu during the prosecution of Cardinal George Pell.

According to The Australian, Vatican and Australian authorities are examining four transfers from the secretariat. Two specifically, they said, were sent by Cardinal Becciu to a company in Melbourne in 2017-2018, and amount to AU$2 million.

In Jan. 13 communique on the disparity between the original Austrac report and the revised figure of $9.5 million, the Holy See said that “The figure is attributable, among other things, to a number of contractual obligations and the ordinary management of resources.”

The communique did not specifically address the report by The Australian that four transfers from the secretariat are under investigation by both Vatican and Australian authorities.

The report that specific transfers were made by Becciu to a company in Melbourne will reignite allegations that the disgraced cardinal used Church funds to help arrange the prosecution of Pell on charges of sexual abuse. 

Pell was, until 2017, charged with cleaning up Vatican finances and frequently at loggerheads with Becciu, who served as the sostituto for general affairs at the Secretariat of State from 2011-2018, when he was promoted to cardinal by Pope Francis and placed in charge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. 

Becciu has been linked, for years, to a series of stories in the ongoing Vatican financial scandal, which has seen at least six secretariat officials suspended after police raids, and previous reporting has established that he frequently clashed with Pell over the Australian cardinal’s efforts to reform Vatican financial affairs. 

In 2016, Becciu is reported to have acted unilaterally in cancelling an external audit of all curial departments ordered by Pell, who Pope Francis put in charge of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy in 2014. Officials at the Secretariat for the Economy have recalled numerous instances in which Becciu resisted attempts by Pell to gain sight of bank accounts and assets managed by the Secretariat of State.

Pell and Becciu also reportedly clashed over the use of illicit accounting practices to disguise loans taken out by the Secretariat of State to fund speculative investments, including in a London property development. 

Reporting on the subject has also included accounts of Becciu attempting to “reprimand” Pell for trying to impose financial transparency on the Secretariat of State’s affairs. Speaking to The Pillar, several senior Vatican sources close to the Secretariat for the Economy have described Becciu’s attitude to Pell during his time in Rome as “poisonous” and “pathological.” 

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Pell was forced to take a leave of absence from his role heading Vatican financial affairs in 2017 in order to return to Australia to face charges of sexual abuse of minors. 

After a jury initially failed to reach a verdict in October, 2018, Pell was convicted two months later of sexually abusing two choristers in 1996, while he was Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell was convicted of committing the abuse, in a busy cathedral sacristy after a Sunday Mass, on the testimony of a single accuser, despite multiple witnesses testifying that Pell was elsewhere at the time of the alleged offence. After spending more than a year in prison, the Australian High Court overturned Pell’s conviction and acquitted him of all charges.

Some supporters of Pell, in Rome and Australia, have speculated that Becciu may have played a role in financially supporting the case against Pell. Those suspicions will be lent new seriousness and credibility by the report that both Vatican and Australian financial watchdogs have identified millions in transfers authorized by Becciu to a Melbourne company at the time of Pell’s prosecution.

Even if the idea that Becciu helped frame Pell proves fanciful or unverifiable, the cardinal faces other problems.

In September, Pope Francis ordered Becciu to resign, after the pope was presented with a preliminary dossier by Vatican prosecutors on allegations of serial financial misconduct by the cardinal. Multiple sources close to the investigation have told The Pillar that prosecutors expect to formally indict Becciu in the coming year and the cardinal could stand trial in Vatican City.

For his own part, Becciu has repeatedly denied all allegations of financial crime or malfeasance. Before being forced to resign the rights and privileges of a cardinal by Franics, he frequently challenged media reports of his stewardship of Vatican financial affairs, calling them “false” and “misleading.” 

After his resignation, and facing numerous accusations, including that he used Church funds to influence or support the prosecution of Pell, Becciu issued a statement asserting “the absolute falseness of any allegations that circulated in the press, and confirms his lack of involvement in any illicit matters whatsoever.”

Many Vatican officials and observers have been reluctant to lend much credibility to the somewhat lurid theory that one curial cardinal funded accusations of sexual abuse against another. But with news that both Vatican and Australian authorities have tied Becciu’s name to millions of dollars going from the Vatican to Melbourne, the truth, in the still-unfolding series of Vatican financial scandals, may yet prove stranger than fiction.