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Latest Vatican mystery raises more questions about pope’s financial reformThe headquarters of the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank.” (Credit: Stock image.)

ROME – Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, unhappy news from the Vatican sometimes has a habit of breaking when the pope is out of town, and thus the media spotlight is momentarily somewhere else.

When the Vatican decided to put a couple of former officials from a papally-sponsored pediatric hospital on trial in early September for financial misappropriation, for instance, they started the proceeding on the day Pope Francis left for a much-anticipated trip to Colombia, apparently hoping it would be wrapped up before he got back. (As it turns out, the trial actually dragged on until mid-October.)

The same pattern applied this week: After Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday, news broke that Italian layman Giulio Mattietti, the Deputy Director at the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called “Vatican bank,” had been removed from his position. Vatican spokespersons confirmed that Mattietti was gone, but offered no explanation as to why.

For those who pay attention to such things, the episode is reminiscent of what happened in June, when the Vatican unexpectedly announced that Libero Milone, Francis’s much-ballyhooed pick as the place’s first-ever independent auditor general, was departing three years into a five-mandate. Then too a Vatican statement provided no explanation, saying only that the decision was by “mutual agreement” and wishing Milone well.

Three months later, Milone broke his own silence to tell reporters, in essence, that the Vatican had lied. This wasn’t mutual agreement, Milone insisted – he was forced out over trumped-charges of malfeasance he attributed to an “old guard” within the system looking to maintain its grip on power.

Vatican officials, meanwhile, went on the offensive, asserting they had “overwhelming” evidence Milone violated Vatican laws by illegitimately spying on people, including superiors and people inside his own office.

Because there was never any official prosecution, either for Milone’s alleged crimes or those of the anonymous forces he claims conspired against him, we still don’t know quite what happened, and therefore how to assess the situation. Answers to several important questions remain elusive, including, “Was Milone’s departure a step toward, or away from, reform?” and “Who benefitted and who lost from his departure?”

A similar fog of uncertainty appears to be settling over the Mattietti episode, with the predictable result of fueling speculation and conspiracy theories. Since the story broke, I’ve been contacted by some Vatican insiders insisting that Mattietti was dirty and that showing him the door is part of weeding the bad actors out of the system, while others profess that Mattieti was a good guy who must have fallen victim to another old-guard plot.

Still others are speculating that this was a preemptive move to get rid of anyone who might question the glowing claims the Vatican presumably will make later this year to Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency, which is set to conduct a review of the financial reforms. There’s even some grumbling that Mattietti may be posed to leak confidential documents, creating the third cycle of such leaks since 2011.

All that can be said for now is that in the absence of a credible official explanation, we’re stuck in yet another of what the Italians call a giallo, meaning an unresolved mystery.

The Mattietti episode is part of a broader apparent crisis in Francis’s clean-up operation.

Shortly after his election, the new pope created three instruments which were supposed to be the lynchpins of reform. The first was a new Council for the Economy, made up of cardinals and lay financial experts, to set policy. The second was the Secretariat for the Economy, a new discastery intended to implement reform, while the third was the independent Auditor General, designed to keep everyone honest.

Today, there’s no auditor general, since Milone was removed and no successor has been named. The secretariat is adrift, since the man named to lead it, Australian Cardinal George Pell, is back home in Australia for the indefinite future, fighting off what Australian police call charges of “historical sexual abuse.” Only the council is operating more or less normally, although its members are hobbled by the fact of not being full-time in Rome and thus unable really to keep a steady eye on things.

The widespread perception is that in a series of internal battles over the last three years, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State has reconsolidated its power over the purse, perhaps even to a greater degree than before the reform project began. To the extent one believes that the Secretariat of State is also the bulwark of the Vatican’s “old guard,” then we’re nearing the point, if we haven’t already reached it, at which some people are prepared to pronounce reform dead upon arrival.

Granted, Francis can be forgiven for thinking that dealing with one of the world’s most pressing human rights crisis, as he was doing in Myanmar and Bangladesh with regard to the long-suffering Rohingya Muslim minority, is more urgent than tweaking the nuts and bolts of financial management in the Vatican. Granted, too, Francis may take some comfort in the fact that most modern popes before him – Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI – all came into office with ambitious aims of “purifying” Vatican operations, and all, to some extent, came up short.

Still, the Mattietti episode is a reminder that Francis’s thorniest challenges don’t just come up on the road. There’s also a fair bit of work to be done at home, too.