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Spectator BlogsCardinal George Pell, the Australian prelate charged by Pope Francis with cleaning up the Vatican’s murky finances, has decided to speak bluntly about the appalling corrupt mess he found when he started work this year.

Illustration by Christian Adams, courtesy of the Catholic Herald

Writing in the first issue of the Catholic Herald weekly magazine, out tomorrow, the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy – an entirely new post – says he was recently asked by a member of a British parliamentary delegation: ‘Why did the authorities allow the situation to lurch along, disregarding modern accounting standards, for so many decades?’

His response repays close examination. My emphases in bold.

I began by remarking that this question was one of the first that would come to our minds as English-speakers (lumped together by the rest of the world as ‘Anglos’) but one that might be lower on the list for people in the another culture, such as the Italians.

Those in the Curia were following long-established patterns. Just as kings had allowed their regional rulers, princes or governors an almost free hand, provided they balanced the books, so too did the popes with the curial cardinals (as they still do with diocesan bishops).

And later:

It is important to point out that the Vatican is not broke … in fact we have discovered that the situation is much healthier than it seemed, because some hundreds of millions of euros were tucked away in particular accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet.

This is an extraordinary revelation. Pell doesn’t give the details, but there are clues:

Congregations, Councils and especially the Secretariat of State enjoyed and defended a healthy independence. Problems were kept ‘in house’… Very few were tempted to tell the outside world what was happening, except when they needed outside help.

Attempts to reform the Vatican bank faltered, says Pell:

When we return to the last years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, we find that troubles had returned to the Vatican bank. The bank’s director, Dr Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was sacked by the lay board and a power struggle in the Vatican resulted in the regular leaking of information. The scandal exploded when Paolo Gabriele, the papal butler, released thousands of pages of photocopied private Vatican documents to the press. My first reaction was to ask how a butler could have enjoyed any access, much less regular access for years, to sensitive documents. Part of the answer is that he shared a large undivided office with the two papal secretaries. All of this was severely damaging to the reputation of the Holy See and a heavy cross for Pope Benedict…

You can read Cardinal Pell’s full article when the magazine is published tomorrow (Thursday). A Herald news story based on the article is going online here and should be live now. (Disclosure: I’m a director of The Catholic Herald.) In his magazine piece, His Eminence sets out the policies of the Secretariat for the Economy, which will be implemented but not formulated by him. The secretariat reports to an independent Council for the Economy created by Pope Francis to which Pell does not belong.

I’d like to draw your attention to three things:

First, Cardinal Pell is hinting at the massive frustration felt by many commentators, including the media, at the Italian way of doing things. I’d go say far as to say that a few Vatican projects have in the past had the whiff of the Mafia or Berlusconi about them. Note that Pell singles out the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s government and foreign service, whose former chief Cardinal Tarciso Bertone faces investigations into the alleged ‘mishandling’ of 15 million euros. He denies any wrongdoing. Cardinal Pell’s reference to ‘healthy independence’ sounds a touch sarcastic to me.

Second, Pell is clearly implementing reforms demanded and devised by Francis. He is acting on behalf of the Pope and also the many cardinals who expressed horror at the Vatican’s financial chaos at the last conclave.

Third, Cardinal Pell notes that the world’s dioceses still enjoy a ‘free hand’ when it comes to spending. His article emphasises that local autonomy is important. But he must be aware that many national bishops’ conferences and diocesan curia fritter away money from the collection plate on pet projects, usually with a politically correct flavour, whose concrete aims are hard to identify because officials spout public-sector jargon. And the unreformed church in England and Wales is one of the worst offenders. If the Secretariat for the Economy were to peer into the books of English and Welsh dioceses, I wonder what it would find.