There’s a fresh set of scandalous tales circulating around the Vatican.
Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the infamous “gay lobby” scrubbing the personnel records of a misbehaving priest to protect one of their own, or it’s opponents of Pope Francis’ efforts at reform – who may or may not be members of the infamous “gay lobby” – whipping up falsehoods about a priest who only wants to help Francis hose out dirty dealing from the Institute for Works of Religion, aka the “Vatican bank.”
Both options are unsavory, and neither one bodes well for the 76-year-old Argentinian-born pope’s aim of stamping out corruption in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church – or for the Church’s ongoing troubles with dishonorable and dishonest priests who neither take seriously its moral teachings nor their sacred vows.
On July 18, Sandro Magister, a longtime, respected reporter on Vatican issues, published a piece in the weekly L’Espresso magazine, titled “The Prelate of the Gay Lobby.”
In it, he claimed that 57-year-old Monsignor Battista Ricca, a veteran Vatican diplomat recently appointed by Pope Francis to serve as his representative, or “prelate,” at the Vatican bank, has long been living a not-very-secret double life.
According to Magister, Ricca was serving in Bern, Switzerland, when he met Patrick Haari, a captain of the Swiss army (NOT a member of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, as has been widely reported). The article states Ricca brought Haari with him when he was sent to Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1999, where they carried on a rather public relationship, during which Ricca secured a job for Haari.
Magister reports that Ricca’s conduct scandalized religious and laity in Uruguay, and that a new papal nuncio (the head of a diplomatic mission of the Holy See), Janusz Bolonek of Poland, unsuccessfully tried to eject Haari.
In addition, the article cites reports in 2001 of Ricca being beaten after visiting a meeting place for gays, and also getting trapped in an elevator with what is suspected to have been a male prostitute.
Magister asserts that Nuncio Bolonek wanted Ricca out and Haari fired, and that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, agreed. Ricca went to Trinidad and Tobago. He remained there until 2004 and reportedly didn’t fare much better at getting along with the local nuncio. So, he finally returned to the Vatican.
There, Ricca held a number of administrative positions, acquiring, according to Magister, a reputation in the media as an “incorruptible moralizer.” Then in 2006, he took over management of different clerical residences in Rome, including Saint Martha’s House, where Pope Francis has been living.
According to Magister, the new pontiff hadn’t heard of the scandals surrounding Ricca and saw nothing to give him concern in the man’s Vatican personnel folder.
Magister says that some of the pope’s senior advisers, or “bosses,” as he puts it, have “hatched against Jorge Mario Bergoglio the cruelest and most subtle deception since he was elected pope.
“They kept in the dark important information that, had he known it before, would have kept him from appointing Monsignor Battista Ricca ‘prelate’ of the Institute for the Works of Religion.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi – a Jesuit, like Pope Francis – fired back at Magister, calling the report “not credible.”
Also, Matteo Matzuzzi, who writes for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, quoted Lombardi on Twitter as saying that “Pope Francis is aware of the accusations made against Msgr. Ricca but has decided to keep him in his position,” and that “The pope has not had the chance to verify whether the accusations against Msgr. Ricca were consistent or not.”
For those that read Italian, the original tweets read, “P.Lombardi: ‘#PapaFrancesco è a conoscenza delle accuse mosse a mons. Ricca, ma ha deciso di lasciarlo al suo posto'” and “P.Lombardi: ‘Il #Papa ha avuto modo di verificare se le accuse a mons. Ricca fossero consistenti o meno’.”
Incidentally, since Francis is about to leave for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for several days to preside over the mass gathering of young Catholic pilgrims called World Youth Day, it seems likely he would defer any major decisions until he gets back. So, keeping Ricca in place for now may or may not be an indication of his ultimate fate.
L’Espresso fired back quickly at Lombardi with this statement:
To Father Lombardi, who defines as ‘not trustworthy’ what was published regarding Msgr. Ricca, L’Espresso replies reaffirming point by point the facts referred by Sandro Magister in his piece, confirmed by several primary sources and, as a whole, considered at the time of such gravity by the same Vatican authorities that forced them to remove the Monsignor from the Uruguay nunciature, in which he rendered his service, giving scandal to bishops, priests, religious and lay persons in that country.
It can be added that the Vatican authorities, instead of making up improbable and ad-lib denials, could verify the trustworthiness of all that was published by L’Espresso by simply consulting the exhaustive documentation in their possession on the affair, in particular that related to his time in the Montevideo nunciature. Further documentation is available from the Uruguayan authorities, from security forces to fire brigades. Not to mention the numerous bishops, priests, religious, laymen in Uruguay who were direct witnesses of the scandal and are ready to speak.
In a post on July 19, Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter – which, aside from the respected Allen, has a reputation of being generally more sympathetic to liberal dissidents against the Church than orthodox Catholics – quoted a “senior Vatican official” as saying on background that “the pope has listened to everyone and has confidence in Ricca.”
Francis’s aim of reforming the Vatican bank is a serious endeavor. Italian authorities arrested a former Vatican accountant on charges he was involved in smuggling $26 million worth of euros.
Pope Francis has already accepted the resignations of two top administrators at the bank, who are facing a civil investigation in Italy for allegedly laundering money.
The pope has also established a lay commission to survey inner workings of Vatican departments, find ways to battle corruption and favoritism, and to make the finances more transparent and efficient.
In a statement, the Vatican said the goal is “the simplification and rationalization of the existing bodies and more careful planning of the economic activities of all the administrations.”
As to the two possible explanations for the Ricca affair listed above, Damian Thompson of Britain’s The Telegraph quoted from an email newsletter written by Vatican expert – and the author of a new book about Pope Francis – Dr. Robert Moynihan, which outlines Ricca’s good reputation at the Vatican in recent years and the monsignor’s growing relationship with Francis over meals at St. Martha’s House.
Moynihan believes this could be Francis’ first real crisis, writing:
I have been a Vaticanist for a quarter century. In those years, I have seen many cases when what seems to be true at first glance is not the truth, or not the whole truth. There is information, and there is disinformation. There are maneuvers to gain influence or to ward off change. This can even include discrediting a person with false charges. We must be very attentive to weigh all evidence and to ask: Is it true? Who provided the evidence? For what purpose or goal? Why now? And, could the facts have a more innocent explanation than appears at first glance? In short, we have to be cautious, and careful, and fair.
American writer and editor Rod Dreher, writing in “The American Conservative” on July 19, blamed the incident on the “lavender mafia,” and wrote:
I don’t know anything about Ricca, but the process outlined here is very familiar. It’s the kind of thing Church insiders — priests, especially — talk about privately, but not in public, and definitely not on the record. In this case, it’s crystal clear that other Vatican insiders who are sick and tired of this garbage leaked the Ricca files to Magister, one of the top Vatican journalists and commentators. Now we will see what Pope Francis will do.