Cardinal George Pell’s time at the Vatican is over.
You can bet the Holy See’s huge financial and real estate assets that, de facto, he is finished as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, the office that monitors those vast resources.
Pope Francis granted Pell an extended “leave” from his Vatican post this past Wednesday so the cardinal could return to his native Australia and face “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual abuse.”
The cardinal must appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 26 when it is expected that the exact nature of the abuse charges will be made public.
Accusations against the cardinal have circulated for many years but they have never stuck. Pell has always insisted on his innocence and this past week vowed to clear his name in what he’s called a “relentless character assassination.” Evidently, he’s hired Melbourne barrister Robert Richter, known as a “standout celebrity criminal advocate,” to defend him.
This will likely require a long and drawn-out courtroom battle that will last at least a year or more. And that’s far too long for a major Vatican office to be left without its head.
Or without the head’s right-hand man.
In Pell’s case that was Libero Milone, an Italian financier born in Holland and educated in England and the United States. The sixty-seven-year-old Milone was hired as the Vatican’s first-ever Auditor General. But he abruptly resigned without any explanation just a week before Pell took his leave. It is still a mystery why the auditor stepped down.
Milone was only two years and Pell a bit more than three years into five-year appointments.
Now that one has left permanently and the other at least temporarily, two minor officials at the economy secretariat will be in charge. One is Msgr. Alfred Xuereb, a Maltese priest who served as a private secretary to Benedict XVI and briefly to Francis. He is currently the department’s prelate secretary general.
The other is Msgr. Luigi Mistò, a former high-level finance officer in the Archdiocese of Milan under Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. He presently oversees the administrative section of the economy secretariat.
Many Vatican watchers and commentators are predicting that these recent developments spell disaster for the pope’s efforts to reform the Holy See’s financial operations.
But Massimo Franco, a respected political commentator for the Milan-based daily, Corriere della Sera, believes it actually provides a new opportunity to get the reforms back on the right track. Paradoxically, he said, the likelihood that Pell will make a permanent exit from the stage could actually advance the financial reforms rather than bring them to a halt.
“The way in which Pell managed them was considered both costly and ineffective,” Franco claimed.
“His secretariat clashed with most of the other Vatican departments. And in this conflict people noted his cultural prejudice against everything that was Italian,” he pointed out.
The cardinal insisted on using English as the official language of his office and he more than insinuated that corruption was inherent in the Italian methods of financial management.
“Pell was heavy-handed in imposing the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon legal system on a world about which he knew little and which he quickly rejected,” Franco said.
The Italian commentator noted that after the cardinal brashly announced that he would make sure there were no more cases “like those involving Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi” (a reference to the Vatican Bank scandal in the early 1980s), some people in the Vatican exclaimed, “Archbishop Marcinkus was hardly from Viterbo!”
Marcinkus, of course, was the Chicago-area prelate who headed the Vatican’s bank (formally called the Institute for the Works of Religion or IOR) when the scandal unfolded.