Bergoglio the reformer, or: If you think the Vatican's finances are a mess...
I've been reading Paul Vallely's papal biography Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to know more about Jorge Mario Bergolio's background and development. Vallely's research into Bergoglio's career as a Jesuit superior and as a bishop in Argentina is deep and very revealing.
When I heard this morning's news about Francis's plans for fixing the Vatican's finances -- read David Gibson's report for the details -- I immediately recalled a story Vallely tells to illustrate the archbishop's willingness to resort to "unilateral executive action" when it was called for:
When he took over as archbishop the diocese of Buenos Aires was facing not just a financial crisis but a banking scandal. His predecessor, Cardinal Quarracino, had been very close to a prominent family of Argentinian bankers, the Trusso family -- of which the Argentine ambassador to the Holy See was a member.
According to Fr. Guillermo Marco, who was Archbishop Bergolio's press aide, there was a run on the Trussos' bank -- the Banco de Credito Provincial -- which they addressed by getting a $10 million loan from an insurance company for veterans in Quarracino's name. Quarracino's secretary, Msgr. Roberto Marcial Toledo, forged his signature on the paperwork.
When the Banco de Credito Provincial became insolvent and the military veterans asked the archdiocese to return the money, it turned out there was no money in the church accounts. A year later, after the Banco de Credito Provincial went bust, it was discovered that the bankers had been paying Quarracino's credit card bills, and taking advantage of the churchman's political influence. More than that, $700,000 had been transferred from the archdiocese's account to the bank -- without being registered in the archdiocese's records. Toledo and two of the Trusso sons went to prison.
Bergoglio's response was swift and direct, according to Marco: he brought in Arthur Andersen, and cooperated with the legal case, with the result that "Bergoglio's thoroughness in the paperwork he handed over to the court meant his reputation was enhanced by the way he handled the whole affair." That's something you don't hear said about bishops very often, even by their former press aides. Vallely goes on, "He then sold off the archdiocese's share in several banks in order to sever any inappropriate links and placed the church funds in normal commercial banks in which the church held no shares," thus eliminating the appearance of and temptation to impropriety and irresponsibility.
Now Francis is moving to bring similar accountability to the Vatican's financial system, as Gibson writes: "The aim is to streamline a famously byzantine governance system by eliminating redundant offices, increasing accountability and financial safeguards, and generally bringing the Vatican into line with accepted accounting and procurement practices." And he hasn't even touched the Vatican bank yet.
Francis's forthright criticisms of exploitative economics had critics like Paul Ryan and Arthur C. Brooks tut-tutting that the poor man just can't comprehend the good kind of capitalism, thanks to his experiences in corrupt Argentina. But even they may have to admit that Bergoglio's tenure in Buenos Aires was just the experience he needs to deal with home economics in Vatican City.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.