Cardinal George Pell – the former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy – called for stronger fiscal accountability procedures at the Vatican, in a recent interview with CNA.
Referring to questionable investments and transactions by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – including controversial investments in a London property which lost an estimated $100 million – Cardinal Pell, 80, expressed gratitude that those transactions have been made known to the public by reporters.
“Now to what extent it is gross incompetence, to what extent it is their willing connivance, to what extent criminal activity is involved – I simply don’t know, but it’s good that it’s come to light,” he said. “What is much more important is that the investment procedures are standardized, and that disastrous investments like this just don’t happen again.”
Cardinal Pell spoke with CNA on May 21, following the release of the second volume of his prison journal, “The State Court Rejects the Appeal.” In the journal – which covers the period of July 14-Nov. 30, 2019 – Pell discussed a variety of matters such as his time in prison, his reflections on the faith, and current events including financial scandals at the Vatican.
Pell, the former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy tasked with overseeing the Vatican’s financial and administrative matters, in 2017 was charged with having sexually abused choir boys in his former cathedral in Melbourne, Australia, in 1996 and 1997.
He left Rome to stand trial in Australia. While Pell’s first trial ended with a hung jury, he was found guilty by a unanimous jury in a retrial, and sentenced to six years in prison on five counts of child sex abuse. A 2-1 decision of the Court of Appeal in Victoria upheld his conviction in August 2019.
Pell spent 404 days in solitary confinement in Melbourne Assessment Prison and HM Prison Barwon, a maximum-security prison southwest of Melbourne. His appeal was ultimately heard and his charges were unanimously overturned by the Australian High Court on April 7, 2020.
Cardinal Pell’s prison journal, written during his incarceration, is now being released in three volumes by Ignatius Press. The second volume was published on May 3.
Pell told CNA that, in publishing his journal, “I hope people will listen to my claim that the Christian package works,” including “the teachings of Christ about faith, and forgiveness, and especially about redemptive suffering.”
In his journal entries during the fall of 2019, Pell mentioned hearing of financial scandals at the Vatican. He stated his concern that the Vatican’s annual deficits could bring serious financial problems for future popes.
In October 2019, the Financial Times first reported that Vatican authorities were investigating a 2014 $200 million investment by the Secretariat of State through the fund Athena Capital. The investment financed a stake in the development of a London luxury apartment project. In 2018, the Vatican Secretariat of State made a $50 million investment in the same property.
The Vatican ultimately lost an estimated $100 million in the investment.
Italian businessman Gianluigi Torzi helped broker the original deal. He was eventually arrested in London on May 11, after an Italian judge issued a warrant in his name for money laundering and fraud offenses. The Vatican is investigating his role in brokering the London deal.
Pell mentioned the controversial property deal in his journal, calling it “only one such disaster and a major part of a much wider crisis” at the Vatican.
“I fear for the financial future,” he continued in his journal entry for Oct. 24, 2019. “Chickens come home to roost, and a poorer bankrupt Church can do nothing material to help the poor.”
In his interview with CNA, Cardinal Pell said that at the time the controversial London deal was reported by the press, “I wasn’t quite sure where it was going.”
“But I’m not a bit sad that news of it has come out, because the Vatican has just lost such an enormous amount of money. The pope said to me he thought it was $150 million. I’m not sure. And the judge in the Torzi case in England wasn’t able to quantify just what the losses were,” he said.
Pell also called on the Vatican to improve its prosecution of financial crimes.
The Vatican had previously arrested Torzi in 2020 on charges of two counts of embezzlement, two counts of fraud, extortion, and money laundering, alleging he was part of a conspiracy to defraud the Secretariat of millions of euros.
In March, a British Judge reversed the Vatican’s seizure of Torzi’s accounts, stating that the “non-disclosures and misrepresentations” provided by the Vatican “are so appalling that the ultimate sanction” was to reverse the seizure of assets. He added that there was not “reasonable cause” to believe Torzi “benefitted” from criminal acts in the case.
Cardinal Pell cited the matter to call for better prosecutors at the Vatican.
“I think the single word I remember from it was ‘appalling’,” Pell said of the judge’s words. “So, I said to one or two senior people here in the Vatican, for goodness’ sake, get good lawyers, so that you can prosecute your case competently and justly.”
In his journal, Pell warned of the Vatican’s annual financial deficits as one of two “major challenges” facing the Holy See, noting that future popes “will face huge financial challenges” if the annual deficits are not addressed.
“The Vatican has only got assets of three or four billion [euros]. But whatever it is, they can’t afford to keep losing €50 [million] or even €20 million a year forever,” he told CNA, noting that expenses from the pension fund could also balloon to hundreds of millions of euros in a decade.
“So, these things have to be faced up to, and dealt with. Because, as I often say, we don’t know how many people go to heaven and hell, but we do know when we’re losing money,” he said.
In March, the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy released a budget for the 2021 year, showing a projected deficit of nearly $60 million.
Regarding the future of Peter’s Pence – the Vatican’s annual collection for the pope’s charitable causes and the Roman Curia – Pell expressed hope in his successor’s oversight of the fund.
“I know my successor Fr. [Juan A.] Guerrero is a competent man, and an honest man. And I think the particular challenges of Peter’s Pence are clearly visible, not least the decline in donations. And, please God, this will be faced up to and dealt with,” he said.
Elsewhere in his journal, the cardinal talked about the value of redemptive suffering, figures from Scripture and Church history he grew close to in prison, and his thoughts on the future of the Church.
Regarding redemptive suffering, “I’ve taken to quoting Karl Marx, who had a terrible attack of boils,” Pell said. “And he [Marx] lamented the fact that he had no god to whom he might offer his suffering. He knew what he was missing. If there’s no God, there’s no meaning to suffering whatsoever.”
“But if you follow a religion where you believe that redemption was affected, was brought about by the suffering and death of a young man, God, 2,000 years ago, and that we can join our suffering with His – that’s a radical, radical difference,” he added.
He said he grew close to several Catholic and biblical historical figures during his time in prison, including the prophet Elijah – “he saved monotheism at a time when it was in desperate trouble, and as a symbol and a patrol for our age and the Western world, his role is very, very obvious.”
Cardinal Pell also mentioned Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan as a role model for him. Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan had spent 13 years in prison, including nine years in solitary confinement, under the communist regime in North Vietnam. Pell also cited Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More as figures he grew close to, as well as American priest Fr. Walter Ciszek, who spent 23 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps.
Pell was not able to offer Mass while in solitary confinement. “It was painful. And I felt it particularly at some times more than others, at the times of the great feasts, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas,” he told CNA.
“I also knew that God hadn’t abandoned me because I wasn’t able to celebrate Mass,” he added, noting that he was allowed to keep his breviary with him and watched Sunday morning Masses and services from jail.
His experience without the Mass was an “exact parallel” to the plight of many Catholics during the coronavirus pandemic when churches closed, he said.
In his journal, Cardinal Pell also addressed a decline in Church attendance and warned of a spread in replacing Catholic doctrine with “pagan teachings.”
“We haven’t been explicitly godly enough,” he told CNA. “We haven’t spoken about God’s love, about the importance of that, God as creator, God as judge,” he said, adding that “the vertical dimension has weakened.”
The cardinal added that Eucharistic adoration is an antidote to this problem.
“I think that’s one reason why adoration before the Blessed Sacrament is so important, and I think one reason why it is so popular amongst younger Catholics, is precisely to open them to transcendence, to take them in the direction of godliness when so much of the society around them keeps them distracted and keeps them at a horizontal level,” he said.