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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.



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Thanks for noting this book, Mollie. The short excerpt available at amazon relates some of the behind-the-scenes activities during the 2005 papal conclave at which now-Pope Francis was second to Cardinal Ratzinger in votes. I'd heard reports about that fact before, but Vallely adds that because of a new  rule that allowed election by a plurality of the votes (instead of by the usual two-thirds) after several dozen voting rounds had taken place, Cardinal Bergoglio let it quietly be known "by gestures more than by words" that his supporters should vote for Cardinal Ratzinger to truncate what may have turned into a  lengthy election process that could have had negative repercussions for the Church. If Vallely's account is true, then my already high admiration for Pope Francis has moved up another several notches.     

I studied with Arthur Brooks at Syracuse University's Maxwell School before he became director of AEI. He is a super-intelligent and extrememly engaging professor- one of the toughest I ever had and I appreciated him. We'd talk some "Catholic" issues after class and I knew his leanings, but was still surprised at his jump to to AEI and some of his subsequent writings. I wrote him once about some kind (!) remarks he made about Dick Cheney and supper with the Cheneys, but never heard from him. He's so full of facts and such a fast talker, I could never hold my own with him, but he surely has a different worldview.

I found this piece from The Economist of two weeks ago very helpful in understanding what Pope Francis lived through in Argentina for seventy-six years.

Watched the rather sobering and devastating PBS Frontline documentary Secrets of the Vatican last night: .  In less than 90 minutes the documentary is able to sum up the host of thorny issues that confront the church both externally and internally.

If anything the Frontline documentary outlines the enormous dimensions of the problems that Papa Francesco faces in any reform and renewal effort.

I was shocked that the documentary practically suggests that Francesco is in real personal danger of physical violence because he is confronting such powerfully entrenched forces that presently control the Vatican, especially its financial money laundering operations.

For me the hero of the documentary is Dominican priest Thomas Doyle who has personally suffered terribly in retailiation from church hierarchs for his years of advocacy for the survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation by priests and bishops.  For me, when Francesco appoints Tom to his commission which is to deal with the abuse scandal, then I'll know that the Vatican is genuinely serious about healing and reform for the sake of the survivors.

The Secretariat for the Economy will not oversee the Vatican bank, known as the Institute of Religious Works, which has been plagued for years by accusations of money laundering. The bank is now being scrutinized by another papal commission, and reforms -- including the closing of scores of accounts -- are being overseen by a Financial Information Authority, set up by Benedict.

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