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The corruption of the Vatican The trial of Cardinal Becciu could destroy the reputation of the Holy See

Pope Francis. Credit: Gugliemo Mangiapane /POOL/AFP via Getty

Pope Francis. Credit: Gugliemo Mangiapane /POOL/AFP via Getty


August 3, 2021   6 mins

The most corrupt nation state in Western Europe occupies only 120 acres of land and has fewer than 1,000 residents. But its capacity for initiating criminal behaviour, and the global consequences of the financial and sexual scandals in which it’s entangled, are hugely out of proportion to its size.

That’s because, around the world, roughly a billion people traditionally regard the state’s geriatric absolute monarch as God’s representative on earth. They may have been aware that, for centuries, a few bad apples in the administration have betrayed the monarch’s trust by embezzling money. But the notion that the whole state was slowly turning into a criminal enterprise would have struck them as ridiculous, even sacrilegious.

Until now.

We’re talking about Vatican City, of course. Visitors to Rome are often sceptical of the notion that this walled enclave behind St Peter’s, less than half the size of Hyde Park, is really an independent country.

They shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever stayed there, as I have done, you’re left in no doubt that when the Swiss Guards wave you through, you’re stepping beyond the reach of the Italian republic. It’s especially true at night, when your footsteps echo in the desolate courtyards.

The Vatican has its own legal system, criminal investigators, gendarmerie and jail cells. And it doesn’t hesitate to use them. When Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was sentenced to jail for aggravated theft in 2012, he served his time in a cell in the Vatican police barracks.

That was a significant conviction. Gabriele had leaked documents alleging bribery and blackmail affecting the Pope’s closest advisors. The resulting “Vatileaks” scandal is suspected to have inspired Benedict’s decision to resign the papal office in despair in 2013.

The cells were occupied again in 2016, when Monsignor Lucio Balda, a high-ranking financial official, served several months there after being convicted of leaking confidential documents to journalists who claimed that the Vatican was engaged in massive property fraud.

At the time of Balda’s arrest, the international press settled on a clear narrative: the Vatileaks scandals showed the scale of the challenge facing Pope Francis as he set about cleaning up the finances of the Holy See. Benedict was weak and craven; his successor fearlessly committed to reform.

That narrative, or at least the part relating to Francis, was soon torn to shreds by events, though the Left-leaning Vatican press corps — utterly smitten by the Argentinian pontiff — was reluctant to draw the appropriate conclusions.

On 18 June 2017, Vatican gendarmes raided the offices of Libero Milone, former CEO of Deloitte in Italy, who had been appointed the Vatican’s first auditor-general at the instigation of Cardinal George Pell, an Australian prelate whom Francis put in charge of reforming finances. The Oxford-educated Pell had the reputation of a bruiser who specialised in detecting bullshit; his appointment was greeted with queasy alarm by the Vatican’s old guard.

At the time of the raid, however, Pell was preparing to return to Australia to face what turned out to be completely false charges of molesting two boys in his Melbourne cathedral in the Nineties. He was convicted of the offence at a retrial and was imprisoned until April 2020, when Australia’s High Court threw out the charges and acquitted him.

But he was obviously no use to Milone as an ally when, to general astonishment, the highly respected auditor-general was threatened with detention in a Vatican jail cell by Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, 73. As day-to-day administrator of the Secretariat of State, Becciu was effectively Pope Francis’s chief of staff.

Becciu accused Milone of carrying out unauthorised investigations into the affairs of top Vatican officials. But that was precisely why Pell had brought him in: he wanted to know about secret bank accounts controlled by Becciu, one of which was linked to a disastrous £300 million property investment in Chelsea. Pell was Becciu’s arch-enemy.

So the Australian may well have felt grim satisfaction last week, as Becciu — incredibly, and disgracefully, made a cardinal by Francis in 2018 — was charged in a Vatican courtroom with embezzlement and abusing his office. He’s also specifically charged with trying to force a monsignor to withdraw evidence he gave about the London property deals.

The case was adjourned until October 5, and that’s fair enough: defence lawyers need time to go through 28,000 pages of documents relating to 10 defendants. According to the Daily Mail, the 487-page indictment against them “sheds light on hefty bank transfers, text messages between collaborators from seized cellphones – even bags of money changing hands and secret meetings in luxury hotels”.

Note that it’s the Vatican itself that has gathered evidence against Becciu and his alleged co-conspirators. And it’s true that from 2018 onwards the Secretariat of State, the Pope’s civil service and foreign office, went after Becciu relentlessly on the orders of his former boss, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

But Parolin had little choice. The rumours surrounding Becciu were becoming more extravagant by the day, which made Francis’s decision to give him a cardinal’s hat even more mysterious.

Many of those rumours are now firm allegations. Ed Condon, editor of The Pillar, a new US-based Catholic news service, has been gathering evidence against Becciu for years — but even he is taken aback by “the sometimes surreal details alleged by prosecutors about some of the supposed ‘investments’ that have been made, including, in one case, a seven million euro investment in the construction of a U.S. motorway that simply didn’t exist”.

Most people first learned of the scandals when they read about the ruinous London property development. “But now the dam has properly broken,” says Condon. “We are seeing the various people charged turn on each other — in the run up to the trial, we’ve had allegations of blackmail, threats of violence and extortion.”

The nightmare for the Vatican is that the defendants aren’t just turning on each other: they’re turning on Cardinal Parolin, who is disliked by many of the faithful for negotiating a deal with China that forced loyal underground Catholics to join Beijing’s puppet “Catholic” Church.

All the signs are that the defence plans to own up to squandering Church money on lunatic speculation — but to claim that Parolin, Becciu’s boss, signed off on the deals. And perhaps they will go further. Becciu’s lawyers have already suggested that Francis himself knew about the London investment.

Is the Pope nervous? Consider one strange detail. When Vatican prosecutors confronted Francis with the evidence against Becciu in 2020, he sacked him from his new job running the Church’s saint-making department, and also stripped him of many of the privileges that go with the rank of cardinal. It was a brutal defenestration, suggesting that Francis had flown into one of his rages, never reported by a compliant press but all too familiar to Vatican staff.

Then, in the week before Easter this year, the Pope chose to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy not in St Peter’s but with Cardinal Becciu, in the latter’s private chapel. Was this a radical demonstration of Francis’s much-advertised “mercy”, as official sources claimed, or an ingenious act of damage limitation before the trial started? Perhaps a bit of both?

One thing we know about this Pope’s mercy is that it’s very selective. For a man never suspected of personal corruption or sexual misdemeanour, he’s oddly indulgent of deeply compromised figures. There is a long list of prelates accused of embezzlement, sex abuse or cover-ups who have been protected or rehabilitated by Francis.

The most notorious example is ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a suspected serial sex abuser who was brought out of retirement by Francis to act as his international emissary. McCarrick was a fundraiser of genius, and was allowed to carry on until the media got wind of claims that he’d abused a minor. As for the $600,000 that “Uncle Ted” handed over as gifts to favoured clerics, who knows where it ended up? In the Vatican no one asks.

This grotesque culture of corruption wasn’t instigated by Francis: things were as bad under Benedict XVI and John Paul II. But neither of those popes were as hot-tempered as Francis, who has just savagely clamped down on the Latin Mass because he considers it too right-wing, and neither of them faced the prospect of a trial in which an unscrupulous cardinal and his former associates will sing like canaries.

Will we learn that Becciu conspired with Australian prosecutors to get Pell jailed on trumped-up charges? Will it shed light on the shameful China deal? The latest theory is that Beijing got hold of the details of the use of the gay hook-up Grindr by Vatican dignitaries and blackmailed the Secretariat of State.

What we can say is that we are well into the second half of Francis’s pontificate — he’s 84 and in fragile health. From October, the trial will overshadow everything, and even if there’s no evidence of the Pope’s complicity in the scandals it’s clear that the proposed reforms that got him elected eight years ago have come to nothing.

The next Pope will inherit a Church whose reputation, finances and internal unity have been destroyed. For the first time in living memory, most of the cardinals processing into the Sistine Chapel to elect Francis’s successor will be praying that the Holy Spirit doesn’t give them the job.


Damian Thompson is a journalist and author

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

It’s hard to tell whether the Australian media which led the campaign against George Pell were complicit or just useful idiots.

There needs to be a reckoning.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brendan O'Leary
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

The mainstream media has become a joke. I hold it in the same regard as I would Soviet propaganda.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

Urgh, I’ll never forget when Pell’s charges were dropped and Dan Andrews said he was ‘so sorry’ to all victims of sex abuse. Anti-Catholicism is truly vile in the Australian media and (some) of the political class. Worse, is when the Hon Tony Abbott visited George Pell in prison, he was called disgusting things. Andrew Bolt – who knew how ridiculous the whole farce was – lost so many advertisers on his show. Let’s not forget Louise Milligan, still getting book deals – after writing such a defamatory book. Yuck.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

As a lifelong and committed Catholic, I can say this article is in the ballpark, but not quite on the nose. Firstly, the Vatican is a sinkhole. It’s a disgrace to honest Catholics — and believe it or not, there are millions of us — and a stench in the House of God. Most of us out here in Catholic Land are wide awake to this and we’re reacting to it with our pocket books. Monitor the plate as it goes around in the church I attend and, while there are generous contributions to the priests of the parish, very little is given to the general collection for Church (upper case C) coffers. That’s an increasingly widespread reaction. I won’t give a penny to the Church as a body. The laity are increasingly sick of the carry-on in Rome and amongst the hierarchy.
Secondly, outsiders may wonder why we stay. It’s because, however compromised it’s become, the Catholic Church is what Christ created on Earth and we hold that it is protected from error. Understand that this does NOT mean the men who run it are protected from error; that privilege applies only to the Magisterium, the body of moral teaching the Church hands down. The fact that the rulers of the Church on Earth are as bent as a dog’s hind leg does not impact this belief. It’s like saying you should ignore your doctor’s advice to give up smoking because he’s a smoker himself. We don’t judge the morality of the beliefs by the morality of those who are charged with upholding them.
Thirdly, it’s interesting how the Church and the world mirror each other. You have a massive body (the Catholic Church) whose levers of power and authority are in the hands of a tiny, unrepresentative and hugely vociferous group of people who are out to completely undermine and overturn everything the body they control has stood for ever since its beginning, and replace it with a completely new entity of violently opposed disposition and outlook. Within Catholic circles, this is sometimes referred to as “the ape of the Church” – it kind of looks like the Church, but it’s really only an imitation of it, and dedicated to completely different ends. And in pursuit of those ends (called “liberation theology” in the Church, “communism” everywhere else) any break with sacred tradition is allowable and any breach of Church or natural law is justified. It isn’t wrong because the people who do these things are just so GOOD that anything they do to forward these admirable aims is completely legitimate. It’s just SO, SO important that these noble goals be achieved that we have to do horrible things in their service. Does that attitude sound familiar to my secular compatriots?

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

“the Catholic Church is what Christ created on Earth and we hold that it is protected from error.” this is utter and ahistorical tosh, and actually at the root of many of the problems of the Church, both in the past and today. When the Pope announced he was infallible in the 19th Century, he was opposed by many, including I believe Cardinal Newman. As soon as human institutions (churches, monarchies, corporations, states) start to assert they have some divine right to exist, they start going rotten.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

It isn’t a human institution.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Did it exist before there were people? If not, it’s a human institution.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Not if the Founder was Divine as well as human

– as Jesus was.

George Stone
George Stone
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Jesus was an invention and an amalgamation of other pagan gods, most likely.

M B
M B
2 years ago

It “isn’t a human institution” in the sense that the devil’s involvement is all too obvious…….

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

If the Catholic Church had NOT been founded by Jesus Christ, it would have perished many centuries ago.

The rottenness is caused by the power and money available to the senior clergy.

David Yetter
David Yetter
2 years ago

Some of us, seeking the original Church established by Christ and His Holy Apostles, have come to a different conclusion and believe that the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church exists to this day in the communion of local churches that still includes all the local churches mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, save Rome and Malta, all the addressees of St. Paul’s letters, excluding Rome, and included, until their destruction in the 1920’s by the Turks, the addressees of St. John’s Apocalypse, to wit what is usually called in the West the “Eastern Orthodox Church”.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Yetter
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Which one? I suppose it depends on whose turn it is to excommunicate the others this week. Folks, I would remind you all that there are atheists present. So, as our parents used to say, not in front of the children.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

I don’t share the author’s bleak outlook for the Vatican. If you asked me while George Pell was in a prison, then maybe. But then, I underestimated how many Catholics are willing to fight against such cancers like the CCP, the Australian media class, complacent Cardinals, wokeness, corny Church music (I joke… or do I?) etc. There’s grit in many Catholics, and an admirable stubborness in their devotion.
Will this rid the Vatican of corruption? No – and I hope a thorough survey is done of finances, illegal activity, etc. I also pray for justice. But a future Pope who is tough, articulate, brave, passionate and devoted – is what the Vatican needs.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
2 years ago

Who would have guessed it ? There is some “Truth said in jest”, my Irish mother-in-law IS actually “more Catholic than the Pope”,

P.S Just to be clear (lest she send around the Priests in petticoats hit squad) by which I don’t mean; an institution that is corrupt, blackmailing, venal, paedophilic sex pest which dabbles in inept property speculation.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

Those of us who love Fellini’s films are not surprised.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

“Now that we have the Papacy, let us enjoy it” – that Medici who made Pope (Leo X?)
Old habits die hard…

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, Leo X. But you missed the first part: “We didn’t expect this”. For Giovanni de Medici winning the papacy was a surprise and he decided it would be a pleasant surprise. It’s nothing to admire, but it sets him far apart from his predecessors and successors – for better or worse.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

The Borgia pope of 20 years earlier then ! The point being that at the height of the Renaissance , when the Catholic Church was employing some of the world’s great artists , the moral example set by the Popes was ,to say the least , iffy .

Dominic S
Dominic S
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Still is…..

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago

The alternative to an institutional church is churches created and run by charismatic preachers. That too often has such problems, and with fewer mechanisms for reform.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

They will receive an appropriate punishment on judgement day.

Dominic S
Dominic S
2 years ago

Flies into rages and then acts brutally, eh?
Now, who does that remind me of?

Frances Mann
Frances Mann
2 years ago

A very good way to learn about Pope Francis is to watch the Wim Wenders documentary film ” Pope Francis a Man of his Word”
It is excellent

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
2 years ago

Very biased article far below the standard of UnHerd. The author has based at least half of the article on rumours, while completely ignoring rumours to the contrary.

Frances Mann
Frances Mann
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

I agree

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

It would be nice if UnHerd also had a regular columnist from the other side of the divide. I read Damian Thompson because I am interested in the Church, but I find it very difficult to separate his prejudices and biases from the actuality he is writing about. Since I am pretty certain DT has never met Pope Francis, I find his description of the pope as evil, corrupt, foul tempered and a bully both unconvincing and deeply un-Christian. Jesus taught do not judge, and love your enemies.

Dominic S
Dominic S
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

There are plenty of books about him, from before his time as the anti-christ, as well as during it – and they all attest to this behaviour.