Twelve months ago Cardinal George Pell was locked in solitary confinement in Melbourne, ostentatiously handcuffed at every court appearance and coming to terms with the dispiriting news that the eminent legal brains of Victoria’s office of public prosecutions saw ‘no justification’ for the High Court to grant him special leave to appeal against his child sexual abuse convictions. Cardinal Angelo Becciu, de facto chief of staff to Pope Francis, was swishing around the Vatican in his scarlet robes, busily engaged in property deals with churchgoers’ money.
Today their fortunes are reversed. Becciu has been sacked by Pope Francis for financial irregularities. He has protested his innocence but he may yet face criminal charges. Luxury flats in London are involved and investment in a film about, of all people, Elton John. For a while Becciu’s reputation did indeed fluctuate like Elton’s candle in the wind, with rumour swirling around him, until the candle blew out in a gust of papal anger, Becciu was told to clear his desk and it was goodbye Norma Jean career-wise.
Pell is free, acquitted of all charges against him, and back in the apartment in Rome he occupied while head of Vatican finances, a post to which Pope Francis appointed him in 2014. After his vindication by the High Court last April, Pell had said he would go to Rome to collect his effects but live in Sydney. It now looks as though he will be in Rome for some time, having been invited back by the Pope himself, presumably to resume his old job – from which he took leave to return to Australia for his ‘day in court’, naively, as we now know, trusting that justice would prevail in Victoria.
The Vatican’s finances, its bank and its links with secular financiers have for many years been less than an open book. They have never recovered from the association with the dubious Italian banker Roberto Calvi who was found hanged – murdered? – in London nearly 40 years ago. There have been constant rumours of shady connections and dodgy deals. Indeed, money-laundering investigators from the Council of Europe turned up in Rome on the same day that Pell arrived. A reputation for financial irregularity would be a liability for any organisation: to a Christian communion it ought to be unthinkable. The damage it must do in rendering unconvincing the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching and practice is incalculable. Like the Pharisees, the Church does not always practise what it preaches. Christ’s condemnation, ‘Woe unto you, hypocrites’ should feel uncomfortably apposite to many at the head of the Church they believe He founded.
To bring transparency and honesty to the Vatican’s financial practices, and remove the stumbling block to its mission that they create, has been a particular concern of Pope Francis. He was elected in part to reform the Church’s administrative machinery, centralised in the Curia, the Vatican’s equivalent of a government ministry. He personally delegated the task to Pell, who at that time was Archbishop of Sydney. It is not only a morally important task, but a practical one of keeping faith with the faithful around the world, who, partly through the annual collection known as Peter’s Pence, are a principal source of the Vatican’s revenue for its evangelistic and pastoral work. They have the right to know that their contributions are responsibly spent.
Since Pell left, things have gone from bad to worse. Large sums have mysteriously vanished and accounting is chaotic. The Vatican is financially embarrassed. Shortage of funds may partly account for its widely denounced deal with communist China (The Spectator Australia, 26 September).
In the course of his earlier investigations, Pell came into conflict with Becciu, who sought to cancel an audit Pell had commissioned, and when Pell protested, obtained papal authority to do so. As ever, Pope Francis’s role in all this may also not be exactly crystalline. As a veteran of Argentinian intrigues, he could well have been backing two horses at once. But obviously he has now decided to support Pell, who on returning to Rome ‘thanked and congratulated’ Francis for deposing Becciu. If this sounds less than charitable one must remember that, given the frailty of human nature, the Vatican is far from being the community of brotherly love and Christian kindliness one would expect. Though not quite what it was in the days of the Borgias, with sybaritic Popes begetting children and slipping poison into the pasta, it is still, sad to say, not the best place to go to see the Beatitudes in action.
Pell also said, enigmatically, ‘I hope the cleaning of the stables’ (a classical allusion to one of the tasks of Hercules) ‘continues in both the Vatican and Victoria.’ Ever since the Victorian police went trawling for evidence against him there has been persistent speculation that someone in the Vatican alarmed by what Pell’s investigations might uncover somehow, perhaps via the Mafia, arranged for him to be conveniently removed. Pell himself has said he suspects that his accuser, ‘Witness J’, was ‘used’. By whom and how? And now three Italian newspapers have reported that Becciu has been accused of transferring 700,000 euros (just under $1,150,000) of Vatican money to Australian accounts during Pell’s trial. The plot thickens.
The rehabilitation of Pell must be a cause of great chagrin at the Australian Bias Corporation, which used taxpayers’ money to conduct a sustained campaign of vilification against him and was jubilant when Victoria’s ‘justice’ system convicted him. ‘George Pell is a convicted paedophile,’ crowed Leigh Sales triumphantly on the night of the decision, with the self-satisfied air of a hunter who has bagged her quarry. And that other ABC exemplar of balanced journalism, Louise Milligan, is she still peddling her book? Leftist bookshop windows were full of it, though if it hasn’t been pulped by now it should at least have been moved to the fiction department.
No less put out by the return of Pell will be Victoria’s sinister Premier Daniel Andrews, now up to his neck trying to control a virus that his own incompetence allowed to escape with renewed force into the community. He made it clear when he heard of Pell’s acquittal that, High Court or no High Court, he always believes the accusers in child sex abuse cases, whoever they are and whatever they say. And on the subject of accusers, isn’t it time we were told the identity of the mendacious ‘Witness J’, whose ‘evidence’ cost Pell 400 days in gaol? Knowing that would be a step towards establishing whether there ever was a Vatican connection and who was complicit.
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