MAXIMA CULPA

Baby Jesus Would Be Ashamed of the Hospital That Bears His Name

The ex-director of the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome (where Melania Trump visited sick children) has to explain why it spent a fortune to refurbish a cardinal’s luxury penthouse.

ROME—Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state under Pope Benedict XVI, is an old-school kind of cleric whose lavish lifestyle has no place in the modest Catholic Church of Pope Francis. He was an early target of the incoming pope’s housecleaning, among the first to be kicked out and replaced by more frugal fathers. Since then, he remains a sort of poster-priest for the decadence and splendor the Vatican’s princes used to get away with.

Now the lavish 2,400-square-foot penthouse apartment he lovingly refurbished with such amenities as luxury white Carrara marble and a $6,000 security door, is the object of a criminal trial that will open at the Vatican’s tribunal next Tuesday. In the dock are two former executives of the Vatican’s Bambino Gesu children’s hospital who will face charges for using "money belonging to the Bambino Gesu Foundation in an illicit way" to help pay for Bertone’s palace, according to a statement by the Holy See press office.

The hospital’s former president, Giuseppe Profiti, and its treasurer, Massimo Spina, have been under investigation for more than a year over the matter, which exploded when aerial photos showed the extent of the restoration, which essentially merged two top floor apartments for the cardinal to share with three nuns and a secretary. Profiti admits that hospital funds were used, but he insists that it was because they intended to hold “fundraisers and meetings” at the penthouse, though none have been reported to have taken place.

The Vatican’s “promoter of justice,” who will lead the trial, disagrees, insisting that Bambino Gesu hospital, which offered to treat Charlie Gard, the British baby whose life support may be pulled, had no reason to spend nearly half a million dollars (€422,000) on the cardinal’s home improvement project.

Bertone, who is not under investigation, insists he had no idea who was paying for the expensive restoration, but when the investigation first opened in March 2016, the cardinal quickly made a personal donation of $150,000 to the hospital’s foundation.

Bertone, who no longer holds any position of power in the Roman Curia, has declined comment about the upcoming trial.

The hospital was the subject of a recent hard-hitting investigation by the Associated Press that alleged serious mismanagement and a change in strategy, emphasizing profitability, that put children’s lives at risk. Among the accusations Rome-based Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield uncovered, were that “overcrowding and poor hygiene contributed to deadly infection, including one 21-month superbug outbreak in the cancer ward that killed eight children.”  

Winfield also charged, “To save money, disposable equipment and other materials were at times used improperly, with a one-time order of cheap needles breaking when injected into tiny veins.” The Vatican called the claims exaggerated and scolded the AP for implying children are at risk at the facility, this despite the fact that many former staff members backed up the claims.

When Donald and Melania Trump visited Rome in May, the first lady chose to spend her time with sick children at the hospital, which is a common photo-op destination for visiting dignitaries.

The hospital’s invitation to treat Charlie Gard came right at the time the AP exposé broke, essentially watering down the bad news and prompting some to question the timing of the offer. One Vatican insider quipped, “Charlie Gard just saved the Vatican’s hospital.”

The Vatican trial of the hospital executives will be the third time secular citizens are tried in the sacred court, following the so-called Vatileaks trials which were meant to punish journalists and sources who leaked information.

In July of last year, a monsignor and a public relations expert were convicted of leaking documents to journalists who helped break the Bertone house scandal. Before that, in 2012, Pope Benedict’s butler was convicted of similar charges. Pope Benedict pardoned his butler and Francis pardoned the monsignor and PR flak, but given Francis’s focus on the poor and scorn for the church’s big spenders, it seems less likely he would be so forgiving if the executives are convicted.

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The trial, which will be witnessed by a Vatican press corp pool, could detail other examples of financial mismanagement by the Vatican’s children’s hospital, according to those familiar with the court case, although it seems unlikely that Bertone, who is still living in his penthouse with the nuns, will ever be charged.