Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cleaning up the Vatican

In many countries it is the custom to do spring cleaning. After a long winter, the windows are opened, and homes are cleaned from top to bottom. This is what Pope Francis started doing for the 1.2 billion-member church that he heads. Now he has finally turned to cleaning up the mess in the Vatican for which the word "Stygian" is not inappropriate.

After a year in the papal office, Francis has established himself as a cross between a rock star and Superman. In 2013 he had already made Time magazine's "Person of the Year." Modelling himself after his namesake, Saint Francis, he lives a simple life-style. He avoids the Apostolic Palace, which he claims could hold 300, and wears a simple white cassock rather than the red robes preferred by his predecessors.

Francis wowed the world by clearly siding with the poor in his first encyclical Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). He threw down the gauntlet to the wealthy of the world when he told them what their task is: "The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor." This reminder has hardly improved his popularity with the rich in the church, including some prelates who also happen to work in the Vatican.

These thoughts were prompted by a series of articles on the first year of Pope Francis and, in particular, a hard-hitting report aired on PBS . It can be viewed at It exposes in unflinching detail the sexual abuse scandal that reaches into the upper echelons of the Vatican. It also delves extensively into the allegations of money laundering on the part of the Vatican Bank. The Vatican is where Francis must begin cleaning house.

I saw the PBS program. Someone has commented: “It is unbelievable that this documentary was ever produced and shown on American television, much less by the government’s PBS network.” I agree.

The tentacles of the sexual abuse scandal reach from every parish, through every diocese and archdiocese, right into the corridors of the Vatican. That this scandal has been allowed to continue so long is astounding, until one realizes that the perpetrators were being defended by those in authority at every step, including the papacy. Thus the necessity of cleaning up the Vatican.

Marcial Maciel Degollado and Pope John-Paul II

The PBS program tells the story of Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, a Mexican priest who founded the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Christ, an order which recruited young men for the priesthood. He was also a drug addict and pedophile who sexually abused dozens of young boys during a reign of terror that spanned decades and fathered multiple children out of wedlock. He even abused his own sons.

But Maciel, whose conduct was repeatedly brought to the attention of church leaders including the future Pope Benedict XVI, was never called to account for his sins. He was protected by former Pope John Paul II.

Maciel was never punished but merely encouraged by Benedict to live "a reserved life of penitence and prayer, relinquishing any form of public ministry." Only this year was he formally denounced by the order he founded for "reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior."

The program also mentions a woman who was raped at the age of eight by a priest who threatened that her parents would "burn in hell" if she told anyone. This incident too like many others was covered up. 

Despite its multiple protestations of remorse over these scandals, the Vatican has done nothing but pay lip service to solving its child sex abuse problem. Sexual abuse, however, goes beyond the abuse of children. The PBS program shows footage of priests in the Vatican engaging in gay orgies at night and yet celebrating the sacraments the next morning.

That there are gay clergy in the Vatican is confirmed by other sources. A former commandant of the Swiss Guard that provides security at the Vatican has said that homosexual clerics formed a virtual "secret society" at the Vatican. A former Guard has charged that he had been propositioned by a Vatican official. Last year Francis himself acknowledged the existence of a gay lobby at the Vatican, but added, "We need to see what we can do about it."

The fact that some former popes did nothing about sexual abuse and even permitted it within the supposedly sanctified halls of the Vatican is frightening and underlines the urgency and necessity of cleaning it up. 

The financial corruption in the Vatican is also reprehensible. In contrast to the simple lifestyle of Pope Francis, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, who was arrested last year for attempting to bring €20 million into Italy illegally, now faces new criminal charges for money-laundering. Before he was suspended, Msgr. Scarano held a key office supervising Vatican financial accounts. His supervisors must have been either terribly negligent or he enjoyed protection.

Msgr. Nunzio Scarano

Scarano's arrest appears to confirm suspicions that the bank, which oversees about €7.1 billion in assets, "continues to be used as an offshore haven," according to knowledgeable sources.

The Vatican Bank may prove even more difficult to deal with than sexual abuse is. Francis has replaced several directors of the Bank, which is properly called The Institute for the Works of Religion (Italian: Istituto per le Opere di Religione – IOR).

He has also appointed a new team to oversee finances and clean up the Vatican bank. He brought in outside consultants to advise on accounting, management and communications. And he established an eight-man Council of Cardinals to act as his personal advisers. But will this be enough?

If reform of the Vatican Bank proves impossible, Francis may have to scrap it. He is already on record as saying that St Peter "did not have a bank account." Scarano is not the only prelate who has allegedly dipped his hand into the Vatican purse.

If Francis manages to clean up the Vatican, there are many more issues that will demand his attention. Just to list some of them: marriage, women in the church, homosexuality, ecumenism, and inter-faith relations. Those who expect him to introduce major changes in all these areas will probably be disappointed. For example, Francis is not going to ordain women priests, but he may appoint women to important positions within the Vatican. Not every Vatican position requires ordination. Perhaps very few do. Clericalism should also be added to the list.

But for the time being Francis will first have to deal with the the major issues in the Vatican. Until he does so successfully, the Roman Catholic Church will not regain the large number of people who have left it for many years already, especially because of the sexual abuse scandal. The crisis in the priesthood will not end either.

My prayer is that Francis will be successful in cleaning house, and that God will protect him from the attacks of the many enemies he has made both within and outside of the Vatican. There are still many theories about Pope John-Paul I, whose papacy lasted only 33 days, met his death. These are all theories; none have been proven. But the Roman Catholic Church and indeed the whole world must be concerned for Pope Francis.

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