Tangled Web

11.04.15 6:45 AM ET

Bugged Priests and Sainthood For Sale

Missing multimillions, secretly recorded priests, and possible threats to Pope Francis’s life—new allegations deepen the Catholic Church’s VatiLeaks scandal.

VATICAN CITY — There is nothing like a good old Vatican scandal to bring Rome to its knees.

Never mind that the city government is already in complete shambles on the eve of the Vatican’s Holy Jubilee, which could double the many millions of visitors to the Eternal City over the next year. No, instead of finalizing preparations for what should be a feather in the pope’s mitre, the Vatican is bracing itself for the release on Thursday of two books that seek to expose the sinister side of everything from saint-making to the very sanctity of the Holy See.

On Monday, by way of pre-emptive measure, the Vatican confirmed that laywoman Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, along with a Spanish monsignor named Lucio Vallejo Balda, had been arrested for allegedly leaking documents to journalists. Both had been on a special commission to advise the pope’s men in charge with reforming the Vatican’s broken financial system, which had, under previous papacies, been accused of money laundering and other unholy financial practices.

The Daily Beast obtained advance copies of both books ahead of their Thursday release, and both seem likely receptacles for the latest chapter of the VatiLeaks scandal, which began when Pope Benedict XVI’s butler was arrested in 2012 for stealing secret documents off his boss’s desk.

The most damning of the two is Merchants in the Temple—to be released as Via Crucis in Italian on Thursday and in English a week later—by Gianluigi Nuzzi, the journalist who was the recipient of the butler’s stolen files, which Nuzzi published in his best-selling 2012 book, His Holiness. In his new book, he focuses on Francis and finance, all the while weaving an intricate story between the popular pontiff’s promises and what Nuzzi tries to prove are his failings. Along the way, he also reveals through stolen documents, hidden taped conversations, and meeting minutes just who he believes Francis really is.

“The Pope, so sweet and affable in public appearances, but steadfast and firm before his closest collaborators,” Nuzzi writes. “Francis of the big smiles and kind words shows himself to be absolute in his goals and intolerant of the Curia’s ‘human ambition to power.’”

But rather than showing how Francis is defeating his foes, Nuzzi paints a far more vulnerable picture of the pontiff who, he believes, has managed very little in terms of reforming the Holy See’s messy finances—perhaps because greater powers prevail.

“Of all the reforms contemplated during the first year of his pontificate, very few managed to get off the ground. This unfortunately meant one thing: Bergoglio’s [Pope Francis’s] plan to drive out the merchants from the temple was still unfulfilled some three years after his election,” Nuzzi writes. “The only project that did become concrete was the communications hub, through the establishment of the new Secretariat for Communications. All the other projects and changes announced remained in the drawer or were only partially realized. This situation was a source of discontent all around. More and more cardinals were criticizing the Holy Father, some quite openly.”

The book contains somewhat bizarre revelations tied to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, including how, a week after the historic announcement, the Holy See received documentation of an apparent deal with the devil to continue its profit-sharing cigarette business through what amounts to a special buyers’ club, complete with member cards for Vatican staff and Roman elite.

“In the same period, business proposals arrived in the Curia that were not quite consistent with the message of the Holy Gospel,” Nuzzi writes, pointing to a series of secret letters between giant tobacco companies like Philip Morris and the Holy See discussing profit-sharing and bonuses for introduction of new cigarette brands to the Vatican City state to sell via their private commissary stores.

But what Nuzzi alleges next could be most worrying for the Vatican. “Today, almost three years since the beginning of Francis’s pontificate, his reform of the Governorate has still not taken effect,” he writes, referring the very Roman Curia Francis hopes to reform. “The shops alien to the Church’s mission are still open, churning out profits and serving thousands of customers who can make purchases there by exhibiting a buyer’s card to which they are not entitled.”

Among those benefits, according to a detailed list of perks still in effect for those who run Francis’s “poor church,” are an allowance of 200 packs of discounted cigarettes a month for certain high-ranking clerics. Nuzzi quotes a recent letter to the committee meant to overhaul the Vatican budget, essentially making sure these items remain untouchable for certain prelates: “Among the perks: The purchase of food, in amounts compatible with family needs, at the Annona commissary or the Community Warehouse at a 15% discount; A 20% discount off the list price limited to a total of 200 packs of cigarettes per month; A 20% discount off the list price for clothing; A 400 liter a month supply of fuel at special prices subdivided as follows: a) Voucher for 100 liters; b) Special price vouchers (15% discount off the going price) for 300 liters.” The list goes on.

The cigarette story is not a complete secret, though it barely rippled in the Italian press when Italian journalist Marco Ansaldo first tried to break it a year ago in a La Repubblica piece in which he mused that he had rarely seen a cardinal smoking. “So who are all those cigarette cartons going to?” Ansaldo asked then, not excluding the possibility that they are resold by someone who is pocketing the difference between the discount and the resale price. “There are even nasty rumors that the person who receives the cartons turns around and sells them on eBay.” Whether Nuzzi’s attention to the troubling contraband detail will stop the practices has yet to be seen.

Another major financial blind spot for the Vatican under Francis, if Nuzzi’s allegations are proved to be true, is the Holy See’s complicated real estate holdings, which range from luxury apartments in Rome rented out at zero rent or for just a few hundred euro a month to other assets like farmland and factories. “The immense real estate holdings of the Vatican are a challenge to Francis’s program and another thorn in the side of his Pontificate,” Nuzzi writes. “The recent history of the Vatican’s management of its real estate has not exactly been happy. Under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the convents, buildings, and churches were administered without a common strategy, and management was characterized by waste, nepotism, and outright scandals. But these problems were never addressed, and passed along from pope to pope for decades. The status quo prevailed, enabling the more powerful or more astute to take advantage of the general state of neglect.”

The Vatican also apparently continues to turn a blind eye to its clerical rent evaders, who racked up nearly €4 million in overdue rent payments, which account for around a third of the Vatican’s total rental income, according to documents Nuzzi says the cardinals tasked with fixing the broken system were given.

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On top of that, properties were apparently let out rent free to compensate for a wage discrepancy for those who deserved a higher salary than allowed by the Vatican pay scale. “The hundreds of rent-free apartments were a coterie of preferential treatment, an expression of privilege at odds with the principles cherished by Francis,” Nuzzi alleges. “It was not clear why an asset that may have been purchased using the donations of the faithful should be granted free of charge, with an open-ended lease.”

But among the biggest scams the Vatican elite apparently make money from is the high price of sinister saint-making, which runs those trying to push their saintly cause even to be considered around €50,000 to cover the costs of the expert theologians, physicians, and bishops who examine the cause. The process of saint-making also involves postulators, or those in charge of pushing the causes forward.

When the special commission in charge of cleaning up the Vatican’s finances found out that there were essentially no records at all of where donations for the causes of saints went, they froze the accounts of almost everyone involved in the holy work of choosing saints, including a postulator, who had more than €1 million spread out among three Vatican bank accounts. No wrongdoing was determined, and the postulator was left to enjoy his tax-free haven, but apparently no accounting has yet been produced.

Nuzzi says the average price tag for sainthood comes to about €500,000. “We then have to consider the costs of all the thank you gifts required for the prelates who are invited to festivities and celebrations held at crucial moments in the process, to say a few words about the acts and miracles of the future saint or blessed,” he writes. “Record spending on these causes has reached as high as €750,000.”

Any profits from donations meant to lift up would-be saints are supposed to go to the Fund for the Causes of the Poor, but that fund remained stagnant despite several banner years in saint-making revenue, writes Nuzzi, who recalls that Pope John Paul II alone beatified 1,338 blesseds in 147 rites and 482 saints in 51 celebrations. “This raised the Commission’s suspicions,” he writes. “No documents. No justification and bookkeeping for an activity involving tens of millions of euros. Yet these are huge sums of money for which Vatican regulations demand proper bookkeeping.”

So too, it seems, is the record keeping for St. Peter’s Pence, which is money collected on June 29, the feast day of St. Peter, from parishes across the world earmarked for the Holy Father’s work in Rome. Nuzzi recounts a worrying letter among the auditors and members of the special commission investigating the Holy See finances.

“One of the biggest gaps is the Peter’s Pence, where they did not give us access to a complete vision of the collection and management of the funds (we’re talking about at least 30—40 million euros, which is the net of the total revenue minus the financing of the Secretariat of State and APSA),” according to a letter between advisers in Nuzzi’s book. “A second gap is, to put it bluntly, ‘what they are not telling us.’ We don’t know whether other funds or assets, in addition to the Peter’s Pence, are being kept off the books of the Secretariat of State.”

Amazon

‘Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican’ by Gianluigi Nuzzi. 240 p. Henry Holt and Co. $18.91

Nuzzi also unveils the apparent truth behind an incident that took place in March of this year inside the Vatican and was leaked in part but never confirmed in full to the press in Rome. The journalist writes that hidden microphones had been discovered in some offices of the Holy See Prefecture. “Unknown hands,” he writes, “had planted a system of bugs in the cars, offices, and homes of some of the priests who work there. They were not just ordinary priests and monsignors. The Prefecture is the control center for the whole financial system of the Holy See. During those weeks the astonished cardinals and monsignors could not stop wondering who would have planted those bugs, and why. The news also landed on the desk of Francis’s personal secretary. One detail made the mystery even more complicated: not all of the hidden microphones worked. Some of them might have been bluffs, rudimentary electronic devices put there to send a message, a warning, to the Pope’s collaborators that no secrets were safe.”

Nuzzi’s book reveals a system so steeped in corruption it may never be healed, but his concern for Francis’s safety is perhaps the most worrisome theme. He says there are too many interests at stake, both inside and outside the walls. “The Mafia has always fought anyone who tried to destroy criminal systems that were able to launder huge amounts of money, and to turn dirty money into apparently normal legal financial realities,” Nuzzi writes. “It is no accident that Italian prosecutors who are experts in organized crime, such as Deputy Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, have repeatedly expressed their fear about threats to Pope Francis’s safety.”

In the end Nuzzi concludes that “Francis—the great, singular Pope—has to count the number of his friends every day to make sure he will not be left alone.”