By Tim Palmer | 6 November 2015
For the Vatican the past few years have produced a stream of scandals and leaks that have exposed the inner workings of the city state like never before. It just got worse.
Two separate books published in Rome overnight claim to reveal more of the ugly secrets of Vatican life. Two Vatican officials were this week arrested for allegedly leaking details to the authors: journalists Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, the latter also the author of the original VatiLeaks scandal under Pope Benedict.
The books contain stories of charitable funds diverted into building palatial apartments for senior clergy, of the avaricious churchmen who simply took over the living quarters of his frail and elderly neighbour while he was in hospital, and of helicopter bills that dwarf Bronwyn Bishop’s. One of the books even puts a price on sainthood – about $750,000.
The Vatican has already responded not to directly deny much of what’s written but to suggest it predates Pope Francis’s drive for financial transparency.
I asked Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the US based National Catholic Reporter, what the books suggest about Vatican life?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: They do talk about a lot of what seems to be happening behind the scenes at the Vatican, even since Pope Francis became the pope in 2015, particularly allegations of cardinals or people in high Vatican offices thinking mainly about themselves and using money for their own ends and not for the good of the church.
TIM PALMER: How lavish are the lives of some of those senior Vatican clergy according to these books?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Well there’s one example given in one of the books that’s quite striking. A Vatican official who apparently wanted a bigger apartment. To do that he basically knocked down a wall into his neighbour’s apartment when his neighbour was in the hospital, his neighbour being elderly, and when his neighbour came home, his neighbour found that the apartment had been changed and this man had basically enclosed a new room into his apartment.
TIM PALMER: In fact one of the books suggests that his number two in the Vatican, Tarcisio Bertone, took $200,000 from a foundation funding a children’s hospital to renovate his mega penthouse, as it’s described, and spent $30,000 on a helicopter trip. Is that sort of thing common?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Well the key thing there is that Cardinal Bertone no longer has his job. He was someone that Pope Francis replaced. We had heard reports that the Pope and Cardinal Bertone had had strong words about the creation of the cardinal’s new apartment and oddly enough yesterday, on Wednesday, in responding to these things, the Vatican actually put out news that the children’s hospital that the cardinal was suspected of redirecting funds is now going to have a new and a governing council to make sure it’s funds are used correctly.
TIM PALMER: Another charity, St Peter’s Pence, has a donation campaign annually in pretty much every parish around the world. The book suggests that only 20 per cent of the money in that fund goes to the poor. What do you think parishioners around the world will make of that when it’s published?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: The Vatican responded to that particular allegation yesterday, on Wednesday, saying that money doesn’t just go to the poor, it goes to the Pope who can use it for whatever needs the church has, but I found that figure of 20 per cent quite striking. I would want to look at it very closely to see how they’re getting that.
TIM PALMER: If it were the case?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Well I think that it raises all the questions of why the Pope has insisted on a transparency and good financial handling at the Vatican. In an Italian newspaper here that published what they called the secret meeting of Pope Francis with some financial advisers about four, five months into his papacy in which he seemed to essentially take them to task and the money spending was out of control and that they needed to adopt modern, Western standards of transparency and fairness.
What’s interesting is that many of the book’s allegations seem to be kind of before Pope Francis’s changes and so it’s curious to me to know what has changed and how quickly that’s come about.
TIM PALMER: Of course one of the people put in charge of that change is Cardinal George Pell. What do these books say about the job ahead of him and how is he seen to be aligned? Is he aligned with the traditions of Vatican spending or well in line with Pope Francis’s objectives?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Well my experiences with Cardinal Pell is he may have differences of opinion with the Pope or with others on the church doctrinal teaching or things like communion for the divorced and remarried, but he is someone who has a very strong reputation as having no quarter for any other church financial scandals and has wanted to completely shut that down and create a modern, transparent financial institution at the Vatican. A lot of these allegations or a lot of these documents are coming from a time before Cardinal Pell was in his current role and not after.
TIM PALMER: One other feature that has been pointed out in what we know so far about the books is the cost of a sainthood.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, according to some of the reports, you know, of course to become a saint in the Catholic Church requires an organisational structure and most groups apparently are quite expensive, they have to get people interested in sainthood cause. According to one of the books, a typical fee for that can be around 500,000 Euros. But then also getting people to look favourably on the cause at the Vatican…
TIM PALMER: In order to get your local saint up, you need to spend something north of a million Australian dollars is the suggestion?
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah. It’s another area where I would really want to know where these figures are coming from, what evidence are they using for that? But there’s always been a lot of questions over how exactly these causes that promote saints use their money and what they have to do in order to get their saints recognised.
TIM PALMER: Joshua McElwee, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in the US.
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