Vatican Repudiates Anonymous Smear Campaign Against Cardinal Pell

The Secretariat for the Economy called charges of extravagant spending lodged by critics ‘completely false.’

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell (photo: Matthew Rarey/ CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Allegations of high spending at the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy are “completely false” the Vatican said, and claims that Pope Francis and the prefect of the secretariat have discussed such matters are “complete fiction.”

In a statement released by the secretariat Feb. 28, a spokesman said the new department has actually been operating “below the budget set when the office was established.”

The spokesman said it would shortly release financial statements giving detailed accounts of all Vatican entities, including the Secretariat for the Economy. In response to some personal attacks against the cardinal, the statement added: “Finally and for the record, Cardinal [George] Pell does not have a cappa magna” — a five-meter long scarlet mantle cardinals have traditionally worn in procession. It is often ridiculed by critics of long-standing Catholic traditions.

The communiqué followed allegations in the Italian magazine L’Espresso that the secretariat had run up a high level of expenses (500,000 euros, more than $550,000) in its first six months of existence and that Cardinal Pell, appointed to his post by Pope Francis in February 2014, was facing resistance to ongoing reforms of the Vatican’s finances.

The Associated Press reported that the leak of Cardinal Pell’s receipts to L’Espresso, as well as “other documents detailing cardinals’ complaints about his efforts,” was “clearly aimed at discrediting him and harked back to the Vatileaks affair.”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a Feb. 27 statement that “passing confidential documents to the press for polemical ends or to foster conflict is not new, but is always to be strongly condemned, and is illegal.

“The fact that complex economic or legal issues are the subject of discussion and diverse points of view should be considered normal. In light of the views expressed, the Pope issues guidelines, and everybody follows them.”

Father Lombardi continued, “The article makes direct personal attacks that should be considered undignified and petty. And it is untrue that the Secretariat for the Economy is not carrying on its work with continuity and efficacy. In confirmation of this, the secretariat is expected in the next few months to publish the financial statements for 2014 and the estimated budgets for 2015 for all of the entities of the Holy See, including the secretariat itself.”

Resistance to Cardinal Pell’s reforms has been growing steadily, with some questioning the scope of the cardinal’s authority and the influence of the secretariat. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said earlier this year that some checks and balances were needed on the powers of the secretariat.

He claimed that investment management should be handled by separate bodies and that two assistant auditors be added to the proposed one to ensure greater autonomy and impartiality. Cardinal Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney and perceived as an outsider by Vatican bureaucrats, rejected Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s criticism, telling cardinals in February that the secretariat is ushering in a new era of efficiency and transparency. He also revealed that an unexpected 1.4 billion euros ($2 billion) had been discovered, which would be placed on the balance sheets in the future.

Cardinal Pell also admitted some resistance to his efforts, as did another member of the secretariat, South-African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, who said there were some concerns from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, although these appear to have been resolved.

There is, however, reportedly some trepidation about future financial reforms. Traditionally, members of the College of Cardinals used to automatically have access to significant funds. However, Pope Francis has stated that alleviating financial waste, clerical bureaucracy and cronyism are among the early aims of his pontificate, which will mark two years on March 13. So changes to fund allotments are expected in the future.

Observers suspect the recently leaked financial documents reveal a power struggle within the Curial offices and possible motives to smear the cardinal who, by all appearances, Pope Francis values for his honesty and commitment and whom he has entrusted with this powerful department. 

The tactics hint at the “last spluttering of old Vatican politics,” one high-level source told the Register. “The use of the poison pen just isn’t going to do it anymore.”

 Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.