War waged against Pope in the heart of the Vatican - whistleblower
Europe’s smallest country - the Vatican, led by the pontiff - is one of the most powerful states on the planet, a moral compass for more than a billion people. However, over the past decades, the Catholic Church has suffered a number of scandals and its congregations are crying out for change. Pope Francis came with the promise of change. But while addressing issues plaguing mankind, what kind of battle is he forced to wage in the Holy See? Are the highest clergy against him, or have they joined his cause? For centuries, the Vatican has been shrouded in mystery, its internal deals secreted behind closed doors. However, one person managed to get through and came back to tell his story. Investigative journalist, author of ‘Merchants in the Temple’, Gianluigi Nuzzi, is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Gianluigi, you’ve mentioned that there’s an ongoing conflict in the Vatican between the old and the new clergy. You even called it a struggle between good and evil. What is this struggle about?
Gianluigi Nuzzi: Ever since Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, was elected we have been witnessing a so-called soft revolution. The pope is trying to make the Vatican more transparent. There are many problems with its financial management. The Vatican’s accounting records have always been shady. There are still cases of money laundering through the Vatican Bank. There’s the Vatican real estate that is being rented out for free. So there are many problems that the Pope is trying to solve.
SS: We will talk about this in detail, but first I wanted to ask you this – you think that this battle against corruption in the Vatican is Pope Francis’ cross to bear. Do you believe that at this point he doesn’t really have much control over the Vatican agencies?
GN: The thing is that, in the last few centuries, popes have mostly been involved in pastoral activities - not governing the state. Bergoglio is the first pope who wants to monitor the accounts and books, everyday income and expenditure of the Vatican and the Roman Curia. This is a revolutionary change – in 2013, a special commission on the Vatican’s economic structure - COSEA - began to investigate this. It’s inspecting the Vatican’s finances and running into a lot of problems.
SS: Can we say that the pope controls the Vatican’s agencies at this point?
GN: He is trying and he definitely has more control over the state than Pope Benedict XVI did, because Pope Francis has already made historic changes to the administration. He set universal accounting and bookkeeping criteria for all Vatican institutions. He fired those who had been stealing money, poorly managing the Vatican’s finances, paying 3 or 4 times more for simple repairs and purchases. He is the first pope to attempt this – monitoring all Vatican activities.
SS: Sounds like a good start, a very good start in fact. But you said that the Roman Curia sees Pope Francis as an outsider. Does it mean that there will be attempts to undermine his reforms, sabotage his orders? Will he face many obstacles?
GN: During his first year, in 2013-2014, many tried to get in the way of his reforms, refused to submit the information that his investigative commission, COSEA, requested. The Pope is trying to reform the Vatican system. There have been many attempts to stop this revolution, and I think the war between those who want to help the pope in his fight for transparency and against corruption and those who reject the changes, is not yet over. That’s what the conflict is all about. However, I don’t think the pope can lose, because it is not just the pope’s fight, the whole Catholic Church, believers all over the world are also part of this battle.
SS: Does the pope have enough power right now to achieve his goals?
GN: No, he doesn’t have enough power. The pope is trying to change the mindset and habits of people in the Vatican. He can’t do anything alone, he needs people. It is important to have the support of the people – Catholics all over the world. I think people outside the Vatican help the pope a lot more than those who live in the city-state. It is not easy to make people in Vatican adopt a different way of thinking. Their mindset is centuries old, and it is impossible to change it in two years. Benedict XVI tried to make changes, fighting against paedophilia, for banking transparency but he failed. His resignation was the first step towards real changes that the new pope is now working on.
SS: Let’s talk about financial transparency. As you said, a special commission - COSEA - was instituted in 2013, its goal is to achieve transparency in economic, financial and management aspects of the Holy See. Why is it failing?
GN: The commission ran into many difficulties. They had a hard time getting access to financial records, because Roman Curia embezzlers did not want to submit that information. Another problem is that cardinals don’t want to share power with the new agencies instituted by Francis. I am talking about the Secretariat for the Economy for example, established by the pope and headed by Cardinal George Pell. The Secretariat should have full authority over all areas of the Vatican’s economy. But at this point it doesn’t have full control, because old cardinals don’t want to hand over the reins of power.
SS: Recently there was a scandal because the head of that anti-corruption commission was detained along with one of his employees for disclosing classified information. Do you think these people deserve to go to prison or on the contrary should be treated as heroes?
GN: I am surprised that a country that doesn’t arrest anyone, even paedophiles and money launderers, arrests a person on the charges of leaking information to journalists. I am not at liberty to name my sources, they are protected by my professional code, but it is truly amazing that the head of the commission investigating the Vatican’s financial transactions is behind bars, accused of a crime that should not even be viewed as a crime - especially since transparency is now extremely important for any organisation and especially a whole state – the state representing the Christian Church.
SS: On the other hand, one of Pope Francis’s first orders instituted serious consequences for those who disclose confidential information. And why is everybody surprised now when these measures are being implemented?
GN: Because nobody is ever arrested in the Vatican.
SS: As the saying goes – there is a first time for everything…
GN: It’s true, but in my book you will find references to documents proving corruption, money laundering, certain privileges for influential groups, 700 square metre mansions. There are no matters of national security in those documents, no state secrets. It is very strange when a person is arrested in a democratic country for disclosing information about corruption, information that everybody wants to have. As you said, in 2013, Pope Francis initiated legislation that requires a prison sentence for those who leak classified information pertaining to the Vatican’s key interests. I don’t think the facts that I shared with readers in my book could be qualified as that. The book is about corruption, unlawful privileges, and poor financial management. The Vatican lives on donations, money that comes from charitable giving.
That’s why this turn of events is very surprising. This country doesn’t arrest people for corruption, paedophilia, money laundering. Just one priest has been accused of paedophilia recently, and they didn’t even send him to prison – he is under house arrest. There was also that Vatileaks incident, when the pope’s butler was arrested for giving me copies of documents. And now we have a third incident of this sort.
SS: You yourself are about to face court proceedings that have already been labeled a “modern inquisition”. Did you anticipate this reaction when you were writing the book and getting ready to publish it?
GN: Of course not. I didn’t think that a journalist doing his job would be prosecuted for it.
SS: Do you think a guilty verdict is possible?
GN: We'll see, they accuse me of publishing information, but it is my job. I am a journalist; I search for new information, something that the public doesn’t know about yet. It’s the first thing that a journalist does.
SS: As far as I know, there is no prison in the Vatican. If they find you guilty, where will they put you? Will they have to build a prison especially for you?
GN: No, I will run to Moscow and ask for asylum.
SS: I am sure we will help you. We already have a good track record on this. But still, if there is no prison in the Vatican, where do detainees go?
GN: I can explain that. But let’s go back to our serious conversation. If I am found guilty, the Vatican will send Italy a request for extradition.
SS: And where would they extradite you, to the Vatican?
SS: And then?
GN: And then everything will depend on whether or not Italy agrees to extradite me after studying the case and making sure that the charge does not contradict Italian laws. Italy protects freedom of press so I don’t think the state will approve my extradition.
SS: Gianluigi, the Vatican says that you obtained the information illegally and there are not just documents but also conversation transcripts among the leaked materials. Does it mean that somebody had wiretapped Pope Francis in order to get information?
GN: No. I have a transcript of the pope’s conversation during his meeting with cardinals dealing with finance. One person recorded this communication. I thought it was really interesting because at that meeting the pope criticized the Vatican’s financial management. Speaking of financial reports, he noted a lack of control over expenditure and asked all cardinals to work with the investigative commission.
There was one person at that meeting who recorded the conversation and let me listen to the recording. It’s amazing. For the first time we found out that the pope talks about the same things in his conversations with cardinals and in public addresses – he strives for transparency and fights against corruption.
SS: That is exactly the impression I got when I read the transcripts of the pope’s conversations with the commission on economic reform. But you say that Pope Francis hasn’t been successful in his fight against corruption. Why do you think this anti-corruption campaign is failing?
GN: I think success is a matter of time. Right now the pope is actively promoting this revolutionary change, but it can’t yield results in a short period of time. He needs time. He also faces opposition in the Roman Curia. There are people who don’t want to lose control and don’t share his view of the Church. There is a battle raging at the Papal Palace, this battle is unseen to us because we only get limited information. We know about a small part of what is actually going on.
SS: Your colleague Emiliano Fittipaldi explains that he published his book in order to inform the pope about illegal activities happening right under his nose. Could it be that the head of the Catholic Church will learn something new from the book or did you shed light on old problems that had already been solved or are in the process of being solved?
GN: The pope knows about most of the problems that I describe in my book, but my point was to show these things to the people, not political or religious leaders. There are facts known to leaders of governments, states, religious organisations, but not regular people. 80% of scandals described in my book were new information to the public. I think that a journalist writes for the public, for people who want to know.
In this case the pope has already started to work on these issues. He is changing the Church and that’s why there is a war in the Vatican right now.
SS: You also write about cases when some Vatican priests plotted against Pope Francis and even threatened him – what did it look like? What kind of threats?
GN: There have been cases of thieves breaking in and stealing documents - they later blackmailed the pope by sending those documents back to him. These documents described the Holy See’s connection with the Italian, American mafia. It was obviously blackmail. Sending documents back in order to remind the Vatican of its past.
There have been attacks on cardinals. Lies have been spread - for example, a couple of months ago newspapers all over the world were writing about the pope allegedly having some brain disease. This was done to make people think that Francis is sick and cannot think straight. But it is not true – the pope is not sick! There is this constant undeclared war that does not look very aggressive on the outside, but there is a lot happening behind the scenes to discredit the pope.
SS: I would like to talk about some of your revelations. You say that if someone wants to be canonized they just need to pay for it. Is it true? And if so, what amount of money are we talking about?
GN: I call it the “Saints Factory”. There are people who deal with canonization in the Church. The investigative commission requested financial records relating to these activities but never got them. They later discovered that there was a practice of canonizing people for as much as 750 thousand euros.
SS: And who benefits from that money?
GN: It is something I would like to know myself but I don’t. All I know is that this money did not go to help the poor. We do know that 400 accounts connected with this activity were frozen at the Vatican Bank.
SS: You also said that most of the Peter’s Pence offerings are misused by the Vatican. You even called it a black hole. What exactly do you know about the use of those funds?
GN: Turns out that out of every 10 Euros, six goes towards getting the Roman Curia’s financial records in order, 2 euros ends up in a bank account that already has 400 million Euros and only the remaining 2 Euros were at the pope’s disposal and were used to help the poor. This situation is very curious, because this money is collected all over the world with the sole purpose of helping the poor. And we discovered that this was not the case, as 80% of the funds went elsewhere. According to the Vatican’s laws, this money can be used to improve the state’s financial standing but nobody knew what actually happened. And in order to find out how the money was actually spent the Pope had to get involved personally. Thanks to Bergoglio, the situation has changed a little: now a half of every 10 Euros goes directly to the poor. I think that’s already something.
SS: In your book you also talk about an incident that was reported by the media all over the world. Some powerful monsignor illegally obtained his neighbour’s apartment- literally breaking down a wall - while the neighbor was away receiving medical treatment. Do some high-ranking priests feel complete impunity acting like that?
GN: Yes, I think it’s true. It’s the way things were before Bergoglio. It is unbelievable. Thanks to Pope Francis the situation has been resolved and that person who tried to seize his neighbour’s property illegally has already been stripped of power. Bergoglio changed things. Incidents like that used to happen all the time. That’s the way it was before Pope Francis.
SS: All these high-ranking priests – cardinals, bishops – used their connections to get luxurious apartments that cost them next to nothing. It’s what you wrote. Why are they able to get away with that? This luxurious lifestyle doesn’t really go with the pope’s ascetic habits. As we know he refuses to have a personal car, cooks his own meals, etc.
GN: It’s a mindset problem. The Pope is the only one who lives in a 30 square metre apartment, whereas his cardinals have 300, 400, 500, 600 square metres at their disposal. They don’t pay anything. Renting such apartments will not solve the problem. But it is a symbolic situation. When the financial reform commission presented the real figures it turned out that this real estate brings only 25% of the profit it could actually bring. The rent paid for some of Vatican’s properties in central Rome is only 25 Euros a year, 2 Euros a month. It’s crazy! Some apartments are rented to regular people, not the clergy, and people basically live there for free.
SS: Now, Pope Francis changed the leadership of the Vatican Bank and invited independent auditors to reorganise the institution and create a new financial department and the Secretariat for the Economy. Do you think these measures are enough to reform the Vatican?
GN: I think these are the first steps. And I also think that there is strong opposition and attempts to block the reforms.
SS: It is believed that Pope Benedict stepped down because of the 2012 scandals. Do you think your book’s revelations could discredit the present pope’s efforts?
GN: I think that Benedict’s decision was revolutionary and nobody expected it. It benefited the church. He basically lost all control. So it was the right decision to step back and let someone capable of continuing the reforms take over, as he himself could not do it.
The church collects less and less, the number of believers is also going down. Also rich Catholic countries that used to give the most (the US, European countries) are going through a tough economic crisis right now. It means that the economic map is changing. Europe used to be the leader, now it is being replaced by the East, Brazil, India… We’ll see.
In this situation it was necessary to find someone who could change things inside the church and restore its reputation. Francis began this process.
SS: But in the beginning of the interview you said that two years is not enough to change such a conservative organization like the Vatican. How long will it take to see results?
GN: We are already seeing some results. The pope stripped influential structures of a lot of their power. Now he is working on changing legislation. The Bank’s transactions are becoming a lot more transparent. It’s the same bank that was involved in laundering money from the mafia - from the United States - it used its funds to help fight Communism in Warsaw Pact countries – Poland and Eastern Europe in general.
Bergoglio changed the situation with the bank, replaced its leadership, put priests like himself who came from Church periphery into power. He changes people, laws, promotes a new mindset. I have no idea how many years it will take but I can tell for sure that his program is revolutionary.