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Have Pope Francis’ financial reforms gone too far to fail?

On the same day a Vatican court met to hear closing arguments in a landmark financial crimes case, Pope Francis issued a statement appearing to call for a lighter touch in dealing with corruption. 

Pope Francis and Cardinal Becciu, archive foto
Pope Francis and Cardinal Angelo Becciu. Credit: Varican Media.

The pope used a Monday audience with Vatican financial auditors to call for “merciful discretion” as they investigate and hold to account bad actors in the curia. 

The remark triggered considerable criticism online from those who interpreted the pope as calling for a kind of preferential option for handling corruption informally, whenever possible. 

Others close to the financial crimes trial, due to return a verdict on Saturday, hace wondered if Francis was sending a thinly veiled message to the judges as they consider the decades in prison and half a billion euros in damages being sought by Francis’ own prosecutors. 

It is not the first time, many have noted, that the pope has appeared to shy away from the strict application of his own ambitious reforming agenda to clean up Vatican finances. 

But more than a decade into his pontificate, and with the world waiting for a verdict on Francis’ own former chief of staff, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, if Francis was hoping to signal his preferred outcome, it may be too little, too late to affect the judges’ decision.

More widely, with Francis’ own state department calling for the court “to prosecute and punish all crimes” in the trial, and pursuing its own case for damages against the accused, could it be that Francis’ reforms have now gathered enough momentum to survive beyond the pope?

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“The lure of corruption is so dangerous that we must be extremely vigilant,” Francis told the auditing team. But, he said, the “absolute transparency in every action” which the pope himself charged the auditing office with bringing to Vatican finances must be balanced with “merciful discretion.”

Scandals “serve more to fill the pages of the newspapers than to correct behavior in depth,” Francis said, generating no small amount of criticism from those who interpreted the pope as calling for a kind of preferential option for handling corruption informally, whenever possible.

Pointing to a host of ecclesiastical scandals in recent decades, several noted that “filling the pages of newspapers” has at times appeared to be the only catalyst for Vatican action. But the recurrence of scandals, even in the past few years, would seem to support the pope’s assertion that bad press doesn’t create “in depth” change — at least not alone. 

While Francis might prefer to handle bad, even criminal, behavior with “discretion” instead of “absolute transparency,” he is hardly the first pope to feel that way. But unlike his recent predecessors, Francis can claim some credit for making  “absolute transparency” something Catholics have come to demand, if not yet expect, when scandals do erupt. 

The culture of rigorous financial accountability which Francis has sought to create on paper, through successive reforms to both the laws of Vatican City and the norms governing curial departments, have often struggled to make it off the page and into the real world, though. 

And, at times, the biggest obstacle to the pope’s reforming agenda has appeared to be Francis himself. 

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From the earliest years of his pontificate, Francis has appeared to set a pattern for himself of acting boldly, but later seeming to shrink from backing the full force of his own reforms.

At first, Francis signaled a no-holds-barred approach to cleaning up money matters, creating two new departments, the Secretariat for the Economy and the Office of the Auditor General, giving them an unlimited mandate to investigate, and in Cardinal George Pell and Libero Milone, naming two Vatican outsiders to cut through an obtuse and impenetrable curial culture.

But within two years Francis sided against his own reformers and with the then Archbishop Becciu, retroactively backing the sostituto’s moves to cancel a Vatican-wide audit and have Milone dismissed for “spying” on the private financial affairs of senior officials, including Becciu.

Coincidentally, Milone and Pell both subsequently confirmed that their first major run-in with Becciu was over their attempts to audit the Secretariat of State’s investment portfolio, and to flag illicit accounting maneuvers used to obscure hundreds of millions of borrowed euros, sunk into what would become the London property deal.

With Pell’s own departure back to Australia to defend himself against accusations of abuse, the tide appeared to go out on Francis’ promised reforming agenda. 

The pope made a withering assessment of Milone’s protests at his treatment by Becciu in the papal Christmas address to the curia in 2017, and there followed a period of years in which it looked like financial reform would become a footnote of failed promise for Francis’ pontificate, as it had for so many others, rather a legacy achievement. 

The Secretariat for the Economy and Office of the Auditor General were left with interim leaders of far lesser and lower profiles than their predecessors; both departments shorn of the moral authority of papal backing necessary to face down larger departments.

Francis promoted Becciu to cardinal and even created a makework position within the Vatican paymaster and sovereign wealth manager as a refuge for Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, an Argentine bishop and friend accused of sexual abuse.

But even with much of the air let out of the reforming push, the initial momentum couldn’t be halted entirely. 

By 2019, major stories were breaking linking senior cardinals to all manner of financial scandals, often with Becciu at the center.

With details of the now-infamous London property deal “filling the pages of newspapers,” as the pope might put it, cardinals like Becciu and Secretary of State Pietro Parolin sought to wave concerns away, insisting that such investment deals were a normal part of Vatican financial life.

But behind the scenes, Francis was concerned enough at what he had been told that he authorized a full-blown forensic financial and criminal investigation into the Secretariat of State’s business deals. 

By September of the next year — in 2020 — the pope had seen enough to demand Becciu’s resignation from the curia while prosecutors continued their work, and to change Vatican law to allow cardinals to stand trial in ordinary Vatican court, ending the centuries old feudal privilege of cardinals only being judged by other clerics, even for civil crimes.

Those moves prompted Pell, still out of office but now exonerated in Australia, to praise Francis for “playing a long game” on financial reform. 

In early 2021, thanks largely to the emerging partnership of the leadership of the IOR, the Vatican’s lay-led commercial bank, and the Vatican City prosecutor’s office, the bank’s former president was convicted and sentenced to years in prison.

Shortly thereafter, perhaps spurred on by warnings from European financial watchdogs to take the prosecution of internal corruption seriously, the case against Becciu and his alleged co-conspirators was finally filed in court. 

Since then, the trial has often spilled into the press, with the star defendant often demanding that Francis excuse him from court or working to drag the pope into the case alongside him.

Through it all, Francis’ enthusiasm for the train of events he set in motion has appeared to wax and wane. 

At times, he’s made pointedly personal gestures of support towards Becciu — saying private Masses in the cardinal’s Vatican apartment and inviting him to attend public meetings and liturgies alongside other cardinals. And away from the Becciu case, the pope has shown few signs of public concern when other senior curial officials have faced accusations of financial impropriety.

But the pope has also done nothing to halt the trial, and even released personal correspondence to the court to be used as evidence, even when this was sure to generate the kind of headlines he clearly dislikes.

And as the trial has rumbled on, Francis has moved to further restructure the way money is managed in the Vatican, stripping the Secretariat of State of its financial portfolio and concentrating curia asset management at the IOR — the only lay-led Vatican institution. 

Now with the case about to be decided, and Francis’ former right hand man possibly facing years in jail, the pope seems to again be getting cold feet about pressing his own legal reforms to the hilt.

But that may not actually matter as much as it once did.

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On the same day Francis called for “merciful discretion” from his own auditors while investigating corruption, Cardinal Parolin had his departments lawyers read out to the court a letter to the judges in which he reiterated “the request to prosecute and punish all crimes which are being acted upon at the request of parties, and of which the Secretariat of State is also considered an injured party.”

Behind the scenes, sources close to a wrongful termination lawsuit brought Milone say the Secretariat of State, and Parolin personally, are hoping the same court can broker a face-saving resolution for all sides that won’t trigger a new, worse series of scandals.

Coincidentally, a Becciu conviction on the charge of abuse of office might prove the key to unlocking that outcome. 

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor has repeatedly let it be known this trial isn’t his only open file, and more than once he’s pursuing investigations into others in the Vatican’s financial orbit.

All of this is going on without Francis direct involvement or even, seemingly, his enthusiastic support. 

Indeed, with the pope’s financial legislation now well-established, and at least some key Vatican figures clearly willing to see them applied, and not necessarily adverse to the publicity it generates, Francis’ reforms may now actually have a life of their own. The extent to which this is true will soon be tested in the aftermath of the current trial, though.

If the judges return sweeping acquittals on the most serious charges for the most high profile defendants, many will question the prosecutors’ methods and competence, and wonder what all the public scandal was for, anyway. 

Others will be left wondering if, even with all of the legal tools Francis has created, it is actually ever possible to prosecute successfully a powerful Vatican cardinal.

But should the judges decide to convict, and to impose sentences in line with the gravity of their findings, it could embolden Vatican financial watchdogs like never before, and serve as a sober warning to dicastery heads that now, maybe, finally, no one is above the law.

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