Transparency in the Holy See
I read with interest Paul Vallely’s excellent article on Pope Francis (‘The Audacity of a Pope’ December 2013/ January 2014), asking if he is the Vatican’s Barack Obama, promising more than he can deliver.
I worry that the undeniable personal charisma of Pope Francis and the subsequent ‘Francis Effect’ may deter people from asking more searching questions about what he plans to do with the Holy See. A new PR operation has shaken things up at the Vatican. The talented papal spin-doctor, Greg Burke, a former Fox News journalist, has gone on a PR offensive, providing positive sound bites to media outlets. Who can doubt the impact of the new Pope pictured offering succour to a man suffering from terrible facial disfigurement?
The Vatican Bank now has two press officers, a first for that secretive institution. Much is made of the 900 suspicious bank accounts which have been closed down but careful reading of the latest report by the European anti-money laundering watchdog shows that only 30 per cent of the 19,000 Vatican bank accounts had been checked by October 2013. There are another 13,000 to go. It must have been embarrassing for the US consultants in the middle of analyzing the accounts that a senior Italian cleric and former banker, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, was caught laundering millions through the Vatican Bank. And there is still no real clarity about who can have a bank account at the Institute of Religious Works, as the Vatican Bank is known, leaving it potentially open to abuse through money laundering.
We are led to believe there is a new openness at the Vatican. But why then did the Vatican, under Pope Francis, introduce a new law last year criminalizing leaks of Vatican information, leading to a maximum sentence of two years in prison? The penalty goes up to eight years in jail if the material concerns the ‘fundamental interests’ of the Holy See. No serious Vatican watcher believes that the butler alone leaked the documents at the heart of the so-called ‘VatiLeaks’ scandal, which revealed corruption and infighting. And if another whistleblower emerges, it will be interesting to see how that person is dealt with.
Pope Francis, like Obama, has many problems to deal with and he has made huge strides in his first year. I wish him every success. But Obama is now deeply wary of internal leaks and talking to the press. I hope Pope Francis will allow his new Vatican to be open to scrutiny, not censored by his PR minders.