ROME—Cardinal George Pell, the disgraced former Vatican No. 3, who was convicted and then acquitted of clerical sex abuse in Australia in April, will return to Rome just in time to help Pope Francis sort through the biggest financial scandal of his pontificate.
In May, the Australian Royal Commission charged with investigating allegations of systemic clerical sex abuse, determined that Pell was well aware that children were being abused by members of the clergy in Australia but failed to use his power as a senior official to stop it. The Catholic News Agency reports that Pell, who has been living inside the protective walls of the archdiocese of Sydney, will fly to Rome on Tuesday in a “private capacity.”
The timing of the return of the former prefect of the Vatican Secretariat of the Economy, coincides with a tawdry scandal involving the Vatican's former No. 2, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 72—who was in Pell’s sights as he tried fruitlessly to clean up the Vatican’s byzantine and corrupt financial dealings before his fall from grace.
Pell had first noted that loans and other transactions Becciu secured as the Vatican’s secretary of state were dodgy at best. But when he pointed out a string of discrepancies to the pope, Becciu, Pell’s senior, called him in and reprimanded him. “Pell was supposed to be the ultimate authority in monitoring and authorizing all Vatican financial business, answerable only to Pope Francis, but Becciu shouted at him like he was an inferior,” various Catholic news outlets reported at the time.
Last week, Pope Francis summoned Becciu, who was head of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints (thus overseeing the various miracles and leaps of faith required to elevate good Catholics and others to sainthood), and fired him, stripping him of his rights as a cardinal, which include voting in the next conclave. It is yet unclear whether Pell’s imminent return in any way informed the pope’s decision.
The Vatican’s financial dealings have been mired in controversy for years, and the Vatican Bank has even had its financial rights stripped by the European Union for not adhering to anti-money laundering standards. Becciu is thought to have in some way aided and abetted the embezzlement of funds that were diverted to buy a posh London property, as reported by The Daily Beast a year ago. He and six others face a potential Vatican trial over the allegations.
Pell had noted that Becciu appeared to have disguised loans he acquired through some allegedly creative accounting using the charity fund Peter's Pence and the funds dedicated to the Secretariat of State held at the Vatican Bank for around $700,000 that he is alleged to have given to his brother in Sardinia, according to an exposé by Italian magazine L’Espresso. Reports suggest that he then cancelled out those “loans” against property the Vatican owned near Sloane Square in London, which in almost any other context would be considered money laundering.
The London property includes luxury apartments in a former Harrods warehouse that are now at the center of the accusations about Becciu's alleged wrongdoings. Pell, when he was last at the Vatican, also uncovered a number of investments Becciu is alleged to have blessed. Among them are $2.2 million to Italian Independent, run by Fiat founder Gianni Agnelli’s grandson Lapo Elkann, who was arrested in 2017 in New York for faking his own kidnapping to pay off a drug debt owed to a male escort. Another investment of $11 million was earmarked for an Italian businessman named Enrico Preziosi, who owns the Genoa soccer team and who faced charges in the early 2000s for manipulating the price of soccer players to falsify accounting.
Upon Becciu's firing, Pell expressed his pleasure in a statement to the Catholic press. “The Holy Father was elected to clean up Vatican finances. He plays a long game and is to be thanked and congratulated on recent developments,” Pell wrote. “I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria.” To date, Francis has still not directly commented on Pell's affairs in Australia, but did call out against “unjust sentences” and “persecution” in the days after Pell was acquitted of clerical sex abuse dating back to the 1970s.
Becciu, as acting secretary of state for the Vatican in 2016, halted an external audit Pell had ordered into the Vatican's badly kept books without consulting Pope Francis. When Pell complained to the pope, Becciu is said to have pulled rank, convincing the pope that as secretary of state, he had more authority than Pell, as head of the Secretariat of the Economy. Francis relented and the audit was never carried out.
Then, in October 2019, the pope ordered Swiss Guard gendarmes to raid the Holy See’s Financial Information Authority (AIF) office inside Vatican City. In doing so, they carried out boxes of records and posted a sign on the Vatican's fortified gates to make sure the administrators were not allowed back inside.
Becciu's firing—and perhaps even Pell’s return—are undoubtedly tied to whatever was in those boxes.