Vatican’s Management Culture Creates Tension, Insecurity
PART 2: Past and present employees say the culture reflects more of a political than Christian entity.
VATICAN CITY — “I had no rights,” said Eugenio Hasler, a former lay official who worked at the highest levels of the Governorate of Vatican City State, the Vatican’s principal administrative office.
A respected official, dismissed in 2017 for no formal reason after a decade of service, Hasler was allegedly let go because he called attention to alleged corruption of his superior. He was summoned to the Pope’s Santa Marta residence where the Holy Father asked him several questions before dismissing him and awarding Hasler’s superior more responsibility the following day.
“In an absolute monarchy, unfortunately, what can be done?” Hasler told the Register.
Others have received similarly abrupt treatment, including the former papal physician, Patrizio Polisca, whom Pope Francis dismissed suddenly and without reason in 2015, as well as three officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, let go for similarly unspecified reasons in 2017. Soon after, the Pope decided not to renew former CDF prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s five-year mandate, also without a specific motive. Cardinal Müller called both instances “unacceptable.”
Such a trend also extends to the superiors of other Vatican departments.
In July, the Register reported on how a general culture of mismanagement in the Vatican helps foster corruption, especially in the context of finances, leading to such high-profile cases as a recently-publicized mishandled London property deal.
For that article and this one, well over a dozen current and former Vatican officials were interviewed before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all spoke of an absence of a “rule of law” and accountability among some senior officials of the Roman Curia. Most of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The behavior is not Catholic or Christian — nor even just of a human standard,” one told the Register at a café near the Vatican. The official said he knew of people who had been “dismissed and given very little notice or reason, they’re just told to go home within weeks, the best-case scenario a couple of months, and they might have worked here for eight to 10 years.”
The management culture, he and other staffers said, resembles that of a court where those who have the ears of power have the influence. Others went further, deriding it as more akin to a mafia-like environment than the Church. Some middle and lower-ranking personnel said they felt vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous and unaccountable superiors, and unable to speak up for fear of retaliation, including probable dismissal.
Climate of Depression and Lawlessness
Many spoke of very low morale. One official who had worked in the Vatican more than 30 years said he had never experienced such poor motivation, from cardinals and bishops to the lowest officials.
A retired curial cardinal who asked not to be named told the Register Sept. 4 that the Curia is currently “characterized by a climate of depression.”
Other critics voiced their frustration over current work practices, with one source arguing that no mechanism exists to voice that frustration because “when you do, it’s ‘goodbye.’”
Many Vatican officials — both lay and clerical — continue to quietly serve the Vatican and the Church with a high degree of professionalism.
“Among the monsignori are a great number of very conscientious, pious and well-trained persons working amid circumstances that are not very simple,” the retired curial cardinal said.
But those challenging circumstances reportedly include superiors acting unjustly and as laws unto themselves.
One former official who left the Vatican three years ago explained that, in his experience, once someone powerful in the Curia hires a person, then that person’s loyalties “go to the individual, or ‘gang,’ who employed him.”
Often those employees then “take the risk in order to please those in power, even taking a bullet for them if necessary.”
As an example, the source pointed to the famous case of Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI found guilty of leaking classified documents from papal offices that were central to the 2012 Vatileaks scandal. After Benedict pardoned him, he was given another job but was still paid by the Vatican, working at the Vatican-run Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome.
But such corruption and malpractice is not everywhere in the Curia and it depends on the dicastery.
“We must distinguish between those congregations that are working ordinarily and more or less producing results, and those congregations which are not governed well,” the retired curial cardinal said. As an example of a dicastery working well, he drew attention to a recent document issued by the Congregation for Clergy that promoted greater cooperation among parish communities.
Still, evidence of unaccountability and lawlessness among senior officials appears to be a serious concern, and sometimes it spills out into the public domain. In June, Crux reported that Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina, suspended over allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians, had returned to work at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the Vatican dicastery responsible for Vatican assets and real estate. As well as sexual misconduct allegations, Bishop Zanchetta is facing charges of defrauding the state. He is awaiting civil trial in Argentina.
Officials who spoke with the Register reiterated that such cases show how much senior officials remain untouchable.
“A Sicilian porter in one of the dicasteries used to tell my boss to be careful with those whom the porter used to refer to as ‘old lions,’” recalled a former staffer. “It was perfectly clear to this simple man that such people belonged to the boss for whom there were no rules.”
The ex-official added, “If you combine the lack of accountability and, of course, the mafia mentality and the absence of the rule of law, it’s no surprise that after two years there’s no sign of the McCarrick report” — a reference to the Vatican investigation announced in 2018 into the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, D.C., but which has yet to be published.
The former curial cardinal agreed that a mafia-like mentality “absolutely” exists, and the presence of homosexuality among clergy, some of whom also tend to operate like a mafia, seems to be is a contributing factor. Pope Francis acknowledged in 2013 the existence of a “homosexual lobby” and a “stream of corruption” in the Vatican. One source described the homosexual element as an especially “tragic aspect” and that it comprises mostly clergy but also many laypeople.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, whose battles against corruption in the Vatican as secretary general of the Governorate led him to be transferred out of the Vatican to become apostolic nuncio to the U.S. in 2011 during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, told the Register Sept. 2 that in “recent decades” the Curia has “gradually altered itself” and now shows “all the distinctive features of a criminal organization.”
“Those in charge, in the typical manner of the mafia, make use of the collaboration of corrupt and therefore blackmailable subordinates,” he said, adding that these senior officials “have every interest” in choosing subordinates who have “a reprehensible way of life” so they can be “kept in check, obey questionable orders, and be discarded without too many scruples.”
Archbishop Vigano cited the Bishop Zanchetta case as one example of many.
Compounding this perception of lawlessness is how, according to many officials contacted by the Register, expressing faithfulness to Church teaching automatically increased the level of job insecurity.
“If you’ve been outspoken in the past about major cultural issues in ways that are faithful to the Church, you’re immediately labeled and in the crosshairs of senior staff,” said the official in the Vatican café. “Even if you are intelligent in your articulation you’re still going to have watch out.”
Others who have departed the Curia echoed similar concerns.
“There was a constant atmosphere of barely concealed threat,” said one, adding that “morale was rock-bottom when I left a few months ago and you would not believe the relief I feel at having gotten out.”
In addition to the alleged malpractice, spying and wiretapping allegedly remain commonplace, “from the lowest rank to the highest” according to another former staffer. It is an accusation that has been frequently made over the years and to which the Vatican has admitted. The surveillance was “terrible for productivity, as well as in terms of morale,” the source observed. “People chose not to speak on the phone, at least on landlines, as they were controlled.” These surveillance allegations came to prominence in both Vatileaks scandals in 2012 and 2015 and then later with regards to the dismissal of the Vatican’s former auditor general, Libero Milone, in 2017.
Other sources spoke of bullying and misogyny.
“The culture is toxic,” said a former official in an influential dicastery. “People are bullied, then deteriorate and leave. I’ve seen people arrive and they’re nice to begin with, then their characters become distorted.”
Various reasons are given for such problems, including moral degradation within the Church as a whole.
Pope Francis alluded to such a culture in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2014 when he spoke of 15 frequent “diseases” that affected the life of the Vatican and “weaken our service to the Lord.”
Others have attributed the problems to the conflicts between “progressives” and “traditionalists” that emerged after the Second Vatican Council, each fighting for influence, although corruption, favoritism and nepotism have been an issue at the Vatican since its foundation. Still others blame the Holy Father for allowing a culture of fear and intimidation to dominate the Curia, carried out by those close to him, although even during Benedict XVI’s pontificate officials complained of an element of fear and the need for discretion in the face of some Italian officials suspicious and hostile to orthodoxy. “This is absolutely not right, it’s criminal,” said the retired curial cardinal, who added that the extent of such fears was “unprecedented” in the Vatican.
Challenges of Reform Efforts
Some sources complained that not enough headway is being made in reforming the Curia. A new constitution expected later this year may provide some necessary changes, but observers expect the reforms will only be structural.
Another former official argued that the private lives of a good number who worked there “were not consistent with their purported beliefs.” What is needed, the ex-staffer said, are people not just committed to work but to holiness, especially in the highest ranks. “I was naive entering there, but what shocked me the most was that most of the people showed no life of faith,” he said.
Broadening the backgrounds of Vatican staff and moving away from an Italian-majority Curia was cited by some of the sources, with one noting a “huge difference” in officials’ view of “what corruption means.”
The issue was raised during the process of reform under Benedict, in particular examining Italians’ cultural attitude to employment ethics, but it was abandoned, the source told the Register.
Various other suggestions on how to improve morale and improve personnel relations have been raised, including a fully independent personnel directorate. Hasler pointed out that there is the Labor Office of the Apostolic See (ULSA) responsible for employee relations with the Holy See and Vatican City State, but he said that office is not independently governed and “could do nothing” to help him.
Hasler articulated what many in the Vatican are asking for: “Real reform made to the root and not to a façade” following the pontificates of both Benedict and Francis.
Speculation has long persisted that Benedict XVI was overwhelmed by the extent of reform needed, especially after he received the famous Vatileaks dossier, which may have played into his reasons to resign. He tried to structurally reform the Curia but was unable to tackle the endemic corruption and, instead of internationalizing its staff, was accused of re-Italianizing the Curia. But he was well aware of the challenges and the fact that such corrupt practices have long existed in the Church, recalling in 2009 how in the 11th century St. Peter Damian taught that the ideal image of “Holy Church” did not correspond to the reality of his time. The saint “did not fear to denounce the state of corruption,” Benedict noted, for example when “various bishops and abbots were behaving as the rulers of their subjects rather than as pastors of souls” and their “moral life frequently left much to be desired.”
Pope Francis was elected on a mandate of curial reform following the Vatileaks scandal and other elements of curial dysfunction during Benedict’s pontificate. He has openly acknowledged the extent of the challenges he faces, quoting a 19th-century Belgian churchman in 2017 to say that reforming the Curia is “like cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush.” One vision he has for reform, perhaps partly to counter accusations of misogyny in the curia, has been to include more women in senior positions, but on the whole his reforms have been viewed as decidedly lackluster with little to show for the work carried out by the Group of Nine cardinals charged with drawing up curial reform.
And despite commentators declaring Francis the first “labor pope” on account of his frequent appeals for workers’ rights and the unemployed, Vatican officials say they yet to see much evidence of such rights being implemented closer to home.
The retired curial cardinal noted that at these moments of “worldwide tension, dangers and insecurities, a rock is necessary and that has traditionally been represented by the Church, by the papacy, but now the papacy itself is involved in these changes, tensions and insecurities.”
The Register asked Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, his deputy, sostituto Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, and the Holy See Press Office if they would like to comment on these criticisms of the Curia’s management culture. Cardinal Parolin declined to answer and the others did not respond by the time this article went to press.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Part 1 of this report can be found here.