A Fox News Alumnus and Chaos in the Vatican: A Timely Convergence

By Betty Clermont | 24 July 2016
Daily Kos

Pope Francis shakes hands with Greg Burke at the Vatican.
Pope Francis shakes hands with Greg Burke at the Vatican.

Pope Francis appointed Greg Burke director of the Vatican Press Office on July 11. Burke was a Fox News correspondent from 2001 until he was hired as a senior communications adviser in the Vatican in 2012.

Burke is an Opus Dei numerary, i.e. an avowed celibate. On July 13, Pope Francis appointed another American close to Opus Dei, Kim Daniels, to the Secretariat of Communications. Daniels was “Sarah Palin’s personal domestic policy czar” in 2010. Daniels is a co-founder and director of the U.S. branch of Catholic Voices. Right-wing National Review editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez, is the other co-founder and director. Lopez regularly lectures at  Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center on K Street, Washington D.C. Jack Valero, co-founder of the worldwide Catholic Voices, is also Press Officer for Opus Dei in the UK.

“In recent weeks in the Vatican chaos reigns supreme … The infinite war between factions, the continuous clashes between the leaders of the Roman Curia, the strategies for the replacement of the president of the Vatican Bank,” Emiliano Fittipaldi wrote in a July 14 article titled “Santa Anarchia” in the prominent Italian weekly news magazine, l’Espresso.  

The Vatileaks trial that ended on July 7, “was a total debacle: strategic, communicative, political,” concluded Fittipaldi, one of the five defendants tried for leaking Vatican secrets that were published. Not only because the trial publicized “the financial obscenities” during the reign of Pope Francis exposed in Fittipaldi’s book, Avarice: Documents Revealing Wealth, Scandals and Secrets of Francis’ Church, “but also because the management of the scandal showed a surprising internal disorganization and an inability to build winning communication strategies” in addition to exposing “new struggles between opposing factions,” Fittipaldi wrote.

These opposing factions, according to Fittipaldi, “are likely to pass sleepless nights to the new head of communications, Greg Burke.”

The clash of the Curia titans referenced by Fittipaldi is the battle between Australian Cardinal George Pell with the Italian Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). APSA is the department which manages the Vatican’s investments and commercial real estate assets.

Curia departments are ranked by importance: first secretariats, then congregations, councils, etc. When Pope Francis was elected, there was only one secretariat, the Secretariat of State. In February 2014, the pope created the Secretariat for (his) Economy and appointed Pell as prefect even though the cardinal’s only previous financial expertise was cheating clerical sex abuse victims out of an adequate compensation known as his “Melbourne response” and the “Ellis defense” where Pell “instructed his lawyers to crush this victim.”

Pell was given “oversight of all economic and administrative activities within the Holy See [the global government] and the Vatican City State” and “would be responsible for all financial planning as well as staffing … of the Holy See and Vatican State.”

In April, Parolin sent a letter to all Vatican departments informing them that an audit approved by Pell and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was being “suspended.” “This decision could not have been taken without the Pope’s consent.” Instead, financial auditing would be conducted by the pope’s appointee and PwC could assist only if a department head requested it.

In response, a statement from Pell’s office “noted with interest that the so-called ‘concerns’ about the PwC audit and contract were only raised when auditors began asking for certain financial information and were finding it difficult to get answers.”

On July 8, Pope Francis enacted a law that Calcagno would manage his own assets and Pell would have a supervisory role. Additionally, “a big chunk of the administrative services to the Curia will be handed to” Calcagno. “This relieves [Pell] from these tasks.” Pell could approve “every act of disposal, acquisition or act of disposition implemented by APSA” but only “on the basis of the criteria established by the Superior Authority,” i.e. the pope.

This was unanimously reported as a move against Pell.

Fittipaldi noted:

But the tension between the contenders and their supporters remains high … The prefects of the departments hardly ever talk to each other and often fight over expertise and cash management. [T]he pope does not tolerate those who dare to speak to him about matters not their core competence [making it] very difficult to build consistent strategies of government, mediate between the factions and propose joint solutions.

When Pell “was called to Rome, it was already known that some victims of pedophile priests pointed at him, back when he was a bishop in Australia, as a protector of deviant priests and as creator, wrote columnist Judy Courtin, of a system to ‘minimize crimes, conceal the truth, manipulate, and exploit victims.’”

Pope Francis’ Finance Czar, Cardinal George Pell.

With a view to Pell’s attempt “to moralize the corrupt Roman curia” about changes in Vatican finance, “a group of cardinals [including Parolin] decided to take up the defense of Calcagno,” after Pell sent an e-mail to Calcagno to “proceed without delay to the transition of the activities of APSA to his new department.”

Calgano, however, may be no paragon of virtue either. Calgano is “being investigated for embezzlement when he was bishop of the city of Liguria. [T]he current president of APSA would have endorsed reckless real estate activities of two members of the institute to support the clergy. Operations and unpacked investments that have devastated the entity budgets.” [Another Vatican reporter noted that “Calcagno also has been accused of inaction regarding cases of clerical sexual abuse when he was bishop of Savona. Though no formal charges were ever filed, before the conclave there was a petition asking he be removed because of his mismanagement.”]

Pell’s “entourage … has harshly criticized the choice of Parolin suggesting it was a reactionary move by the corrupt Roman Curia against the work of transparency pursued by the Economy Secretariat” exemplified by having outside auditors.

Parolin has his own “faction” also. Parolin is described as a “protégé of,”  “raised by”  and “close to” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Pope John Paul II’s powerful secretary of state. Sodano is still alive, head of the College of Cardinals, and has many supporters in “the Curia of the old days.”  It was Sodano, who “wielded immense power over appointments of bishops in Latin America,” when “the star of Jorge Mario Bergoglio starts rising in the 90s.”

Sodano was a supporter of Chile’s dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet,  as was Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, who Pope Francis appointed to his Council of Cardinals. The pope named Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who had supported the military coup overthrowing the democratically elected and progressive president in 2009, as head of his council.

Recently, “Cardinal Parolin has considered opening an ‘Office for Papal Mediation’” to promote the influence of Pope Francis in international diplomacy.

“The infinite war between factions is likely to make short a new victim: the president of the Vatican Bank, Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, appointed under pressure by Pell,” Fittipaldi wrote. “The chairman of the [bank’s] oversight committee of cardinals, Santos Abril y Castelló [the pope’s close friend], criticized in private results of his management,” per Fittipaldi.

On May 12,  de Franssu revealed that the bank’s “investments in fossil fuel companies” have continued to the present despite Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. So de Franssu’s continued employment may be in doubt but not Pell’s. The Australian knows where the bodies are buried and, even after Pell suggested that Parolin cancelled the audit to keep Vatican finances secret, Pope Francis assured him he would remain head of the Secretariat for the Economy until 2019.

The second big change Pope Francis made in the Curia was the creation of the Secretariat of Communications. “Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, prefect of the secretariat, said in a recent interview that the Secretariat aims at ‘proactive communication’ with the goal of anticipating news rather than chasing the news trend.” His department functions amid “concerns about the possible misinterpretation of spontaneous (or naïve) communications of Pope Francis.” It is his department that “prepares a series of tweets” using Pope Francis’ name, “which can be of commentaries, paraphrases of his documents or homilies” submitted to the pope for his approval.

“There will be no more segments of autonomy,” Vigano said. All Vatican communications – the press office, TV, radio, social media, publications – will be coordinated from one source. Vigano is also working on “a single portal,” dot.catholic, for “aggregating around a domain the Catholic world.”

In addition to a special department for economic and financial communications, Vigano wants to also create a “crisis communication department” in Burkes’ press office.

Controlled news to mitigate PR disasters like the Vatileaks trial and to be “pro-active” with “anarchy” in the Vatican is a uniquely suitable role for a Fox News alumnus. Burke is now in a position “where real Vatican policy is set” and “political muscle is wielded,” according to a U.S. Vatican reporter.

Or, as the show biz daily, Variety, wrote: “Burke’s appointment as the first American in charge of the pope’s media image comes as Murdoch-owned pay-TV Sky gears up for the launch of [the] hotly anticipated TV series ‘The Young Pope.’” (Rupert Murdoch owns Fox News.)

Paloma García Ovejero, a former employee of the Spanish bishops’ communications office, was appointed as Burke’s deputy director, making her nominally the highest ranking woman in the Vatican. García Ovejero has a “knowledge of Chinese, a noteworthy skill” because Pope Francis is “pushing for a breakthrough” in his relationship with China. She described her new role as “transmitting exactly what [the pope] wants to say, what he wants the world to know.”

Burke “noted that in choosing an American and a Spanish journalist, the pope has made ‘an important sign of internationalization’ in order to reach out to Catholics across the globe.” Pope Francis can use more help “across the globe.”

The U.S. media that provided “a high volume of media coverage preceding Trump’s rise in the polls” to increase the number of readers and viewers and, thus, their advertising revenue, also created a superstar pope for the same reason.

While Pope Francis may be the second most admired man in the U.S. after Pres. Obama in a recent survey, “global admiration for Pope Francis is in sharp decline. The pontiff fell seven spots in 2016, from sixth down to 13th among the world’s men, the biggest drop for anyone on last year’s list.”

The Dalai Lama is ranked eighth among men the world admires, five places higher than the pope. In December 2014, “Pope Francis rejected the Dalai Lama’s request for a meeting because he did not want to jeopardize his efforts to improve relations with China.”

In an excellent “Special Report: Pope pushes for breakthrough with China” by Reuters published July 14,  they note that “For China, improved relations could burnish its international image and soften criticism of its human rights record.” Improving diplomatic ties with China will be unattainable unless Pope Francis can improve his own international image.

Like the Vatileaks trial, promoting then demoting a powerful prelate, or keeping his finances secret, the pope may have made another miscalculation putting a Fox-News-style journalist in charge of his press office.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009).

Everything you need to know about the Vatileaks II trial

7 July 2016: Vatileaks journalists cleared as PR consultant and priest found guilty

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