26 September 2020, The Tablet

Becciu bombshell – Pope moves fast when trust is lost

Becciu bombshell – Pope moves fast when trust is lost

Cardinal Angelo Becciu speaks with journalists during a media conference in Rome yesterday.
CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves

It was bombshell news. 

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of the most powerful figures in the Roman Curia, had lost his cardinal rights and was being removed from his position as prefect the Vatican's saint-making department. 

No reason was given for Becciu's sudden removal, which happened so swiftly that it was announced to the world by the Holy See press office just over an hour after the cardinal's audience with Pope Francis had finished. 

Since then, some details of the case have become clearer, including the cardinal's determination to prove his innocence. Others, predictably, remain murky. 

The speed of Becciu's removal is significant. There are several examples of the Pope leaving high ranking officials in senior positions despite them not sharing his vision for the Church, or even undermining it. 

When trust is broken, however, Francis tends to move quickly. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was told within minutes during a meeting with the Pope in 2017 that his mandate as prefect would not be renewed. Cardinal Müller had tried to create a role for himself which was not justified by his mandate.

Similarly, when Archbishop Georg Gänswein, then Prefect of the Papal Household, became embroiled in the saga over a book allegedly authored by Benedict XVI on clerical celibacy he found his duties had been reassigned

The Pope still has the instincts of a Jesuit superior: disagreement is one thing but breaching trust is a no-no. 

So it appears with the case of Cardinal Becciu, who explained in press conference yesterday that the Pope had told him: "I no longer have trust in you." Becciu himself explained that Vatican magistrates had told Francis that Becciu had allegedly committed acts of embezzlement, following an investigation by the Italian financial authorities. 

In the past, a cardinal's denial on this kind of case may have been enough for him to stay in post, but Francis does not see high ecclesial rank as immunity from accountability. Neither does the law. 

What is doubly dramatic about the Becciu case is that the 72-year-old prelate worked at Francis’ side as his chief of staff for five years. He was one of the Pope's closest aides helping, for example, make the arrangements for Francis bring back 12 Muslim refugees on his papal plane from the Greek Island of Lesbos. 

He also carried out this role for Benedict XVI and when I interviewed Becciu in 2018 stressed he was a papal loyalist, whoever sat on the Chair of St Peter. 

According to the cardinal, during a meeting with Francis which he described as “surreal”, the Pope told him that he “no longer has trust in me because a report came from the magistrates that I allegedly committed acts of embezzlement. I admit that the Pope was very troubled, and he suffered while telling me this.

After the Pope asked for Becciu's resignation and renunciation of his cardinal rights – including voting in a papal conclave – the Sardinian churchman offered it immediately. 

Becciu is accused of favouring one of his family by transferring 100,000 euros for a cooperative which is part of the Caritas branch of his home Diocese of Ozieri in Sardinia during his time as chief of staff to the Pope. His brother is president of the cooperative. The cardinal said it was within his discretionary powers to make the transfer, that the money was not for his brother but for a centre which helps migrants and the unemployed. 

It all comes after a new Vatican law was introduced this year seeking to clamp down on conflicts of interest as part of the Pope's drive to clean up the Holy See's finances. 

In his case, Becciu believes there has been a “misunderstanding”, telling reporters the money is still in the Caritas bank account, and that everything has been documented. At the end of the audience with the Pope, the cardinal said he offered to leave his apartment in the Vatican but Francis told him to stay “because of all the work you have done for me”.

The Holy See has not provided the reasons for the cardinal's dismissal while Becciu has not been questioned by investigators. During the press conference, he denied other allegations of financial wrongdoing due to be published by the Italian weekly L'Espresso

Absent in the Becciu removal story, so far, is the Vatican's purchase of the property in Sloane Avenue, in Chelsea, South West London. The controversial deal was carried out by the Secretariat of State when Becciu was in charge, and the cardinal has faced questions about his involvement. Vatican prosecutors are now investigating the property acquisition. Some have tried to pin responsibility in this case onto Cardinal Becciu. 

Becciu has, however, always denied any wrongdoing over the Sloane Avenue deal. He has not been questioned by prosecutors and says the Pope told him he had acted honestly in this matter.   

That brings us to another undercurrent to the Cardinal Becciu story. As papal chief of staff, known as the “sostituto” (substitute), he wielded enormous influence both over the Vatican administration but also diplomatically. 

He created some powerful enemies, including Cardinal George Pell, the former Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, who clashed with Becciu on numerous occasions over the management of Vatican finances. 

Pell, now based in Sydney, Australia, claimed the Italian cardinal blocked his reforms, although Becciu suggested they had different visions on how to go about things. The cardinal left the Vatican in 2017 to defend himself in a sexual abuse case and had his convictions overturned in May after a long legal battle. 

On 25 September, in a celebratory statement, Cardinal Pell “thanked and congratulated” the Pope “on recent developments” adding: “I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria.”

The last line will feed a theory pushed by Pell's supporters that Becciu was somehow involved in the cardinal's legal problems and that the Vatican may have conspired with police in the State of Victoria, in Australia. A narrative has been pushed that the cardinal is the leader of the Roman Curia's old guard who would stop at nothing to hold onto power. As a result, Becciu has come under some heavy media fire from Catholic outlets in the United States. 

When Cardinal Pell left the Vatican in 2017 he pledged to fight to clear his name, and Cardinal Becciu today said he sent a note of “solidarity” to Pell at that time. 

The Italian cardinal has also revealed a determination to clear his name – although he can expect a hard road ahead.  


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