Vatican watchdog's spending is slammed in magazine report

Australian cardinal heading effort to track Vatican cash accused of major spending in magazine report

The Australian cardinal handpicked by Pope Francis to cut outlays and shed light on the Vatican’s murky finances has been accused of spending about $560,000 in six months by flying business class and using large sums on salaries and office furniture.

The allegations, contained in leaked figures published by Italian magazine L’Espresso on Friday, suggest Cardinal George Pell also spent $2,800 on religious robes at a tailor and about $5,200 on kitchen sink fittings.

Despite Francis’ decision to move into humble dwellings at the Vatican, Pell has spent more than $3,200 a month to rent an office and apartment at an upmarket address where he spent nearly $53,000 on furniture, according to the allegations.

After his move to Rome to spearhead Francis’ mission to free up Vatican funds for the poor, the former archbishop of Sydney said he would try to save the Vatican “millions, if not tens of millions” of dollars a year.

Since then, he has flown business class and paid an assistant he brought from Australia a $16,860-a-month salary, the magazine reported, citing leaked Vatican documents.

Francis, the article added, had challenged Pell on his spending.

The pope appointed Pell last year to head of the newly formed Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, which was given sweeping powers to reform the Holy See’s finances.

In December, Pell said he had found hundreds of millions of dollars hidden off the books at the Vatican, and blamed departments that would “lurch along, disregarding modern accounting standards,” although critics argued the money was being properly administered.

Pell said it was impossible for anyone “to know accurately what was going on overall.” He suggested that the Italian prelates who traditionally handle the Vatican’s cash were less interested in transparency than Anglo-Saxon accountants.

The new leaks about Pell’s spending were widely suspected to be the work of Vatican prelates unhappy about his incursions on their authority, and recalled the Vatileaks scandal, in which letters revealing the inner workings of the Holy See were leaked by the butler of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

On Friday, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denounced the leaks, stating that “passing confidential documents to the press for polemical ends or to foster conflict is not new, but is always to be strongly condemned, and is illegal.”

L’Espresso also published the leaked minutes of a meeting held on Sept. 12 at the Vatican by a commission of cardinals overseeing the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, or APSA, which is due to hand over some responsibilities to Pell’s new Secretariat for the Economy.

Bemoaning Pell’s accumulation of powers, French Cardinal Jean Luis Tauran said, “We are in a phase of Sovietisation, it is very worrying,” according to the magazine report.

Italian Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re added, “In my opinion it is very dangerous that the secretary takes everything in hand." Italian Cardinal Attilio Nicora said that he was “astonished” that Pell had communicated his request to take over APSA powers via email, instead of sending a headed and signed letter.

Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that the L’Espresso articles “make direct personal attacks that should be considered undignified and petty. And it is untrue that the Secretariat for the Economy is not carrying on its work with continuity and efficacy.”

“In confirmation of this,” he added, “the Secretariat is expected in the next few months to publish the financial statements for 2014 and the estimated budgets for 2015 for all of the entities of the Holy See, including the Secretariat itself.”

Kington is a special correspondent.

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