Some extraordinary news, a Roman postcard, and what comes next
The Friday Pillar Post
Happy Friday friends,
Before we get going, some housekeeping. Some of you may remember we said that we would give the first $10 of every new paid subscription last week to Aid to the Church in Need.
Well, it turns out a lot of you were very interested in supporting them. We are going to be cutting Aid to the Church in Need a cheque for nearly $2,000 this week — because of you.
To everyone who decided to make last week the week they would join us: Thank you: thank you for helping us as we try to keep this show on the road, we think our journalism is worth paying for and we’re grateful you agree. And thank you for helping us help ACN.
Hi from here
JD and I are in Rome this weekend. When I left Washington it was 95-odd degrees, so I thought I was more or less ready for anything the city could throw at us; in the end its 83 right now and supposed to rain later, so packing that seersucker suit was a waste of space.
The current weather aside, it is an odd time to go to Rome; the city tends to steadily empty out during the second half of July heading into the August recess, the Vatican even more so. But this is definitely a full work trip for us — more about this in a bit — and there are still people around and still some things happening.
In his letter introducing the new norms, Francis wrote about the “magnanimity” of his predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI in allowing widened use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and noted that they did so in the sincere hope that it would help foster genuine ecclesiastical unity through liturgical diversity, especially following the Lefevbreite schism of the 1980s.
Instead, Francis said, the opportunity offered by the two previous popes has been “exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church.”
Consequently, the pope said, he has taken the “firm decision” to “abrogate all the norms, instructions, permissions and customs” that precede Friday’s motu proprio, including Summorum pontificum.
The decision will garner fiercely emotional responses from both ends of the liturgical spectrum, and the ensuing debate will be freighted, as was the pope’s own letter, with as much discussion of the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II as with the liturgy itself — indeed, the pope’s clear opinion is that one is a often a thin proxy for the other.
Something completely different
This is a pretty Roman newsletter, and before I get into the other things we need to talk about, you might want something of a palate cleanser.
So, on a totally different note, Michelle took a long look today at the American Solidarity Party, which is trying to establish itself on the national political landscape as a home for disaffected values voters from both parties.
It's no secret that for many Catholics especially, neither of the two parties offer a coherent platform which lines up with the priorities of the Church. Michelle spoke to some of the ASP’s more prominent members, including Fordham theology professor Charlie Camosey, about the party, its platform, and what it thinks it can do differently.
Life in the fast lane
It’s been two weeks since Vatican prosecutors handed down their indictments, with a 488-page document to back them up.
There is a lot of detail in there, all of which paints a fascinatingly complicated web of dodgy companies, shifty characters, and Swiss banks straight out of central casting. Much of what the prosecutors are charging will be familiar to you if you have been following this story along with us for the last few years.
But there are some truly exceptional details still to be teased out, one of which we reported this week involving Enrico “Rocketman” Crasso, who was for years the Secretariat of State’s most trusted investment advisor.
Among other crimes, Crasso has been charged by Vatican prosecutors with pitching the secretariat on investing 7 million euros in a bond issue meant to fund the private construction of a highway in North Carolina. Those of you with some knowledge of how highways are actually funded in the United States will have some questions at this point — the secretariat did not, it seems, and they bought the bond.
Here’s the funny thing about the deal:
During searches of the secretariat’s offices, investigators found the bond prospectus, the minutes of a pitch meeting with Crasso written up by Fabrizio Tirabassi (remember him?), and authorization for the investment signed off by Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
But when they searched Crasso’s offices and emails, they found a different prospectus for the same bond, which made no mention of a highway in North Carolina, but instead said the bond issue was raising funds for an equity stake in three smallish Italian companies.
It seems the Vatican’s copy had been “modified,” though who modified it is still unclear: during an interrogation Crasso assured Vatican prosecutors he’d “never heard of North Carolina,” so I’m sure it couldn’t have been him.
Did I mention that the bond was being sold by a Florida-based company, HP Finance, which happens to be owned by Crasso? No? Neither did he. He’s being prosecuted for that, too.
A cry for help?
It also seems like Crasso moved money between the company and his personal bank accounts somewhat promiscuously, prosecutors identified two accounts in particular, both at UBS branches, one in Miami and one in Connecticut.
The U.S. company and bank accounts raise the possibility that American financial authorities might have their own case to prosecute. In fact, the whole case file is riddled with details suggesting the complicity, or at least gross negligence, of financial institutions in several countries.
One of the questions I have been asking myself as I read through the prosecution case is: why haven’t they charged the banks? And there may be a simple answer to this. The Vatican prosecutor’s office is small, less than ten people all in. They have been working close to flat out on this case for two years and, it may well be, charging ten individuals is the absolute limit of their bandwidth.
While it might seem crazy to some of us that a bank could have a stable arrangement with a government official paying him to steer that governments cash to the bank, the idea that the Vatican City Promoter of Justice could file charges against a bank the size of - just as hypothetical example - UBS is simply not credible.
On the other hand, there’s absolutely no reason the prosecutors needed to publish details like the account numbers and addresses of Crasso’s preferred UBS branches in the U.S., unless they are putting these details out there for others to pick up and run with.
It’s early yet, but depending on what other details come out in court, the Vatican financial trial could end up rippling far beyond the city state’s jurisdiction.
The blame game
Whatever happens elsewhere, there is going to be a Vatican trial, and there are going to be 10 people who have to answer some fairly serious charges in court. I had originally wondered if, when it came to trial, many of the accused wouldn’t just circle the wagons, but it seems increasingly clear that isn’t happening. Instead, the preferred line of defense seems to be to point the finger upstairs, to the Secretary of State himself, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Perhaps the two most prominent names on the indictment list are Cardinal Becciu and René Brülhart, the former president of the Vatican’s financial watchdog who, his lawyers confirmed to us earlier this week, was also employed as a “consultant” by the Secretariat of State. It seems like a fairly clear conflict of interest, but Brülhart insisted to us that the whole situation was above board and known to everyone who needed to know.
As the story was told to us, Brülhart’s side gig at the Secretariat of State was arranged by Cardinal Becciu, but the Swiss lawyer insisted to us that it was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, who authorized the contract.
We’ve previously reported that Gianluigi Torzi, the man accused of trying to extort the Vatican for millions over a London building, argued (somewhat successfully) in front of a U.K. judge last year that Parolin had personally approved the transactions Torzi will now go on trial in the Vatican for arranging.
Also this week, Cecilia Marogna, the “geopolitical strategist and security consultant” accused of embezzlement by the Vatican, made it clear she would be pointing to Parolin in her own defense when she comes up in court.
Marogna released the texts of some emails which she claims show her work for the secretariat was legitimate, and legitimately expensive, and involved ransoming missionaries from trouble spots around the world.
From what I have seen so far, these are mostly emails from her to Parolin, and not the other way around. And she has also previously said she ran a de facto private intelligence operation for Cardinal Becciu, including compiling dossiers on the moral failings of senior curial officials. So how far these emails will get her in court is not clear.
But what does seem clear is that a growing number of those facing trial in two weeks — Becciu, Brülhart, Marogna, Torzi, Mincione — plan to argue that everything they did, they did with the full authorization of Cardinal Parolin.
For his own part, Parolin has been loath to address publicly the financial scandals at his own department, but he may soon find he has to count the potential cost of not offering his own version of events.
What comes next
I mentioned at the top of this newsletter that JD and I are in Rome right now. We have a couple of meetings coming up in the next few days, both here and back in the U.S., which are the last phase of some long-form investigative stuff we have been working on.
These are by no means easy stories, and it is going to take us a few weeks to get them all out. To that end, this is the last newsletter of the usual kind you’ll be getting from me or JD for the next week or two — instead, we’ll be using the Tuesday and Friday newsletters to publish a series of related stories beginning next week.
When that’s all done, we’ll return you to your regularly scheduled Pillar Posts as normal.
So, I’ll see you when I see you, but you’ll definitely be hearing from us in the coming days. In the meantime, please pray for us.