Former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell said the world’s smallest state risked slowly “going broke” unless it tamed ballooning deficits, and expressed hope his successor would be spared the resistance to reform that he said thwarted him.
Cardinal Pell, 79, was cleared of sex abuse charges in his native Australia in April. His book “Prison Journal”, published this month, recounts his 13 months in solitary confinement in tiny cells following one of the most divisive trials in the country’s history.
In a 90-minute interview with Reuters in his Rome apartment across the street from a Vatican gate, Cardinal Pell discussed his darkest moments, how his faith kept him from falling into despair, the harm the worldwide sexual abuse scandal had done to the Church and the current state of affairs in the Vatican.
“Look, it was bad, it wasn’t like a holiday, but I don’t want to exaggerate how difficult that was. But there were many dark moments,” he said, wearing a black clergyman suit with a silver cross around his neck.
Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney, in 2014 to head the newly-created Secretariat for the Economy and mandated him with cleaning up the Vatican’s murky finances.
Cardinal Pell ran into resistance from some Vatican officials, particularly Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, then deputy secretary of state who wanted Vatican departments to continue controlling their own funds.
Cardinal Becciu forced out external auditors brought in by Cardinal Pell as well as the Vatican’s first auditor general.
In September, Pope Francis fired Cardinal Becciu, accusing him of nepotism and embezzlement. Cardinal Becciu, who also has been caught up in a scandal involving the Vatican’s purchase of a luxury property in London, denies all wrongdoing.
Cardinal Pell went to Australia in 2018 to face charges and never resumed his Vatican duties. He returned to Rome in September and has met quietly with his successor as treasurer, Jesuit priest Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves.
Ballooning deficits, shaky pension fund
“I think we are much, much better placed than we were,” Cardinal Pell said of the state of reform of Vatican finances, including new accounting and controls.
“The great challenge that lies before the Vatican is that it’s slowly going broke. Now that’s a bit of an exaggeration (but) it’s slowly happening,” he said, adding that he was basing his comments on public information.
Growing Vatican deficits — the 2020 shortfall is expected to be more than 50 million euros — and a looming deficit of hundreds of millions of euros in the Vatican’s pension fund means potential future trouble.
“You can’t go on like that forever,” Cardinal Pell said. “The only thing that I’m keen on is that people, in a very clear-headed way, face up to the situation.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with Vatican finances, forcing it to dip into reserves and implement tough cost controls. The Vatican Museums, a once-dependable cash cow, have been closed for months, resulting in a loss of millions of euros in revenues.
Cardinal Pell said he had no doubt that Father Guerrero was honest and up to the job. “What is important is that he continues to have the support of the pope and that he is not thwarted the way I was thwarted,” he said.
He called the London deal “an absolute fiasco, even in terms of competence,” with “enormous losses” that will have to be written off. Vatican magistrates are investigating the deal.
Cardinal Pell said the lowest point in his prison ordeal was when his first appeal was rejected in August, 2019.
“I was down. I was very disappointed. I came to be very cross,” he said. “(But) I said my prayers and got on with things.”