ROME — Although most of the Catholic world has known of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on charges of sexually abusing two altar boys in 1996 since early December, now that the gag order imposed by an Australian judge has been lifted, the news is officially out in the open.

The outcome of Pell’s second trial on the same charges — the first ended in a hung jury, with 10 of 12 jurors voting to acquit — raises obvious questions about the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals and how Pope Francis will respond to this latest chapter in that long-running and depressing drama.

Less obviously, however, the conviction also beckons questions about another front in the pontiff’s reform campaign, Vatican finances, and the effort to ensure that the sort of money scandals that have plagued the Vatican in the past don’t recur.

Pell, of course, was the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, the body created by Francis in 2014 to serve as the “tip of the spear” for his campaign to clean up the Vatican’s financial operations. Doing so was a key element of the mandate he received from the cardinals who elected him to the papacy in 2013.

Yet early into that effort, Pell ran into resistance, some of it perhaps due to his undiplomatic style and lack of appreciation for the unique nature of the Vatican, which is not, and cannot be compared to, a major archdiocese in the Anglo-Saxon world. 

Yet some of that blowback was also clearly due to the resentments of a Vatican old guard, which simply didn’t want to see the status quo challenged.

For whatever reason, Francis essentially has sided with the old guard in a series of decisions that have had the collective impact of reducing the importance of the Secretariat for the Economy, even well before Pell was indicted for “historical sexual offenses” in 2017.

By most accounts, the watershed moment came in 2016, when Francis stripped Pell’s department of control over the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s financial powerhouse that controls both its investment portfolio and its real estate holdings.

Around the same time, Pell and his team also lost a battle over hiring an external firm to conduct a transparent annual audit.

(As a side note, the Vatican has not even released an annual financial statement since 2015, let alone one that has been independently audited.)

Since 2017, the Secretariat for the Economy essentially has been leaderless, as Pell was given a leave of absence to return to Australia to defend his name and, in the interim, no successor was appointed. 

Although Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti has confirmed that Pell’s term as prefect has now ended, there’s been no indication of when a new finance czar might be appointed.

The vacuum at the secretariat, according to most observers, also has to be seen in tandem with the situation at the Vatican’s Auditor General office, another institution created by Francis in 2014 to inject an independent check-and-balance into the system. 

That job, too, has been vacant since 2017, when Libero Milone, a well-regarded Italian financial expert, was forced to resign under murky circumstances.

Pope Francis meets Libero Milone, then the Vatican's auditor general, at the Vatican April 1, 2016. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS)

Of late, still more questions have been raised about the seriousness of the pope’s financial reform in light of the case of Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who was brought to Rome by Francis in 2017 after charges of sexual abuse first surfaced against Zanchetta in the pope’s home country.

Zanchetta is accused of sending intimate photos from his phone, harassing seminarians by entering their rooms at all hours of the night, and also of financial mismanagement. 

Fairly surprisingly, when Zanchetta arrived in the Eternal City he was assigned to a position in APSA, a move which, ironically, could be seen as bringing together the two most persistent sources of scandal for the Vatican, i.e., sex and money.

Concerns about whether anyone is truly minding the store also surfaced in January, when Francis was constrained to put an aide in charge of the choir of the Sistine Chapel after reports of a diversion of choir funds for unspecified, but presumably illegitimate, purposes.

Taken together, these developments have led many observers to declare that financial reform under Francis, if not quite dead, is certainly on life support. 

The reality of the situation is that not since the era of Saint Pope Paul VI has control of Vatican finances been so thoroughly concentrated in one department, meaning the all-powerful Secretariat of State, whose monopoly, actually, was precisely what the Secretariat for the Economy originally was intended to break.

To be sure, there also have been moves that could sustain a “glass half full” perspective, such as the June 2018 appointment of Bishop Nunzio Galantino, previously the secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference, as the new president of APSA.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino attends a 2015 prayer service in Fuheis, Jordan. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/NADER DAOUD)

Galantino is a figure who clearly enjoys the pope’s trust, and he’s known as a “clean-hands” bishop who’s never attracted even a whiff of personal scandal. To date, however, he has yet to launch any bold new initiatives.

Now that it’s crystal clear Pell will never return to Rome, at least with any formal Vatican position, the question is what Francis will do with his old position.

If the pontiff appoints someone with a real financial background and a demonstrated commitment to transparency, then perhaps the obituaries for financial reform already written by most observers will have to be rethought. If not, then they’ll likely pass as the first draft of history.

Either way, what Pope Francis does regarding Pell’s abuse conviction is only half the battle awaiting him. There’s also the question of whether he’ll use the occasion to revive a much anticipated cleaning of the financial stables, or to bury it.

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