Corrupt and secretive Vatican locks up whistleblower. First scandal of Pope Francis era. Good story, but the narrative is wrong. The pope is quite right to have ordered the detention of the cleric alleged to be behind the leaking of the latest juicy revelations about cardinals living in luxury apartments and the dishonest use of charitable funds.
The latest allegations about dodgy dealings at the Holy See are revealed in two books published this week. They are based on leaks from the reformers tasked by Francis with cleaning up the Catholic church. It has been billed as Francis’s first scandal because the reforming pope has responded by locking up the two Vatican insiders thought to be responsible for the leak. It all runs counter to the previous image of Francis as a breath of fresh air. Same old same old.
One of those detained is the highest ranking Vatican official ever arrested, Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, a Spanish priest with links to Opus Dei. The other was a financial PR, Francesca Chaouqui. Both were members of the influential papal thinktank, Cosea, set up by Francis soon after his election to create the template for far-reaching reform of Vatican finances.
The trouble with the current narrative is that it inverts the chronology of what is actually happening in Rome. The Vatican has certainly needed whistleblowers in the past. The original Vatileaks affair, in 2012, revealed top-level corruption and intrigue which the Roman curia were anxious to keep concealed. The leaks – by Pope Benedict XVI’s butler – were motivated by a desire to expose the curia officials manipulating and thwarting his beloved boss.
But Vatileaks 2 is “revealing” scandals that have already been uncovered by Pope Francis’s reform teams – and which the pontiff has already addressed.
Consider the disclosures. The then governor of the Vatican, Bishop Guiseppe Sciacca, ordered workmen to break down a wall in his already magnificent lodgings to steal a room from an elderly priest next door while the man was away in hospital. But this happened before Francis was elected. And Francis has already summarily demoted Sciacca and forced him to move out.
Likewise Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is alleged to have used €200,000 from a children’s hospital charity to refurbish his penthouse. He has been sacked from his job as Vatican No 2. More than that, Francis has reconfigured the job so that Bertone’s successor has no direct power over Vatican finances.
Or take a third revelation, of dubious movements of big money in the department responsible for making saints. It’s true, but the fact has emerged precisely because Francis’s reformers spotted it, and froze the €40m in the department’s bank accounts.
Vatican finances are the area in which the pope’s new broom has swept most rapidly and ruthlessly. He has appointed new Vatican Bank bosses and a stronger financial regulator. He has created Rome’s first independent auditor general and a new finance department led by tough-guy Australian cardinal, George Pell. And he established a supervisory Council for the Economy half of whose members – for the first time ever in the Vatican – are outside lay experts.
Even the most embarrassing of the revelations – a secret recording of the pope talking to reformers – portrays Francis in a good light. He is heard declaring that finances are insufficiently transparent and demanding competitive tendering for all expenditure. In truth all the leaked material, which was gathered at Francis’s behest, underscores reform. Yet it is presented as undermining it.
Those who leaked all this were motivated by a desire to “flush out and denounce the opponents of the revolution of Francis,” says Gianluigi Nuzzi, the journalist who received the documents. This is disingenuous. It has been reported in terms of horror at the scandal rather than approval of the rigour of the Francis clean-up.
Of course there is a case for full transparency. But the emphasis should be on the issues the Vatican is still failing to address – like the €13bn a year the church is losing by renting out grand apartments at below market rates. The cardinals in them could be housed more modestly and the balance be used more in keeping with the pope’s desideratum of “a poor church for the poor”.
There are issues of trust too. Vallejo was in line for a top job in the reform process until he was sidelined by the pope last year. He must have known that the real whistleblowers who have been reporting abuse to the pope would be less likely to speak out if they thought their communications with the pontiff might be made public.
He would know too that the pope, smiling and avuncular in public, is an uncompromising operator in private. One of the first laws Francis passed, within three months of becoming pope, made the leaking of confidential documents a serious crime under Vatican law. Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda should not be surprised that the pope is now enforcing it. That is proof of his determination to bring change, not evidence of the opposite.
Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.