Will Money Troubles, Muckraking and Twitter Derail Pope Francis' Financial Reforms?

Will Money Troubles, Muckraking and Twitter Derail Pope Francis' Financial Reforms?

James Madison once observed, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Alas, this is not the case, so every public and private institution is filled to the brim with flawed human beings; that includes the Roman Catholic Church.

As millions saw in person and around the globe during the recent World Youth Day celebration in Rio de Janeiro in late July, the Church’s Pope Francis — like every pontiff before him — has his own personality, style and way of relating to people.

In the particular case of the recently elected Francis — formerly Argentine-born Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — he’s charismatic, warm, approachable, charming, unpredictable, and plainspoken.

This is especially evident in a lengthy and unusual papal chat with journalists on the flight back to Rome from Rio. It caused quite a stir for several remarks, including a informally phrased restatement of the Church’s position on the compassionate treatment of those with same-sex attraction.

While Francis is eager to act in his role as a pastor by embracing the disabled, the poor, and even an enthusiastic Brazilian boy who couldn’t stop hugging him, in his other capacity as head of the Church and the Vatican City State, Francis is accelerating his reform of the inner workings of the Vatican and institutions associated with it. Only in the Chair of Peter since March, he’s facing some tough challenges.

Some of the issues are criminal matters, another is more like a gossipy scandal, and one of them could be called a social-media #FAIL by a communications expert who should have known better.

Much of this centers around the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), popularly known as the Vatican bank. Founded in 1942 (making it a mere pup among Church institutions), the IOR’s role is to protect and administer property to be used for religious or charitable purposes.

Privately held and run by a CEO who reports to a committee of cardinals and the pope, it has over 30,000 accounts and a distribution network in more than 100 countries. Its $8 billion in assets is considerable but small in comparison to large multinational banks (per CNBC, top U.S. bank JPMorgan Chase has roughly $2 trillion in assets).

In the wake of serious charges of money laundering and corruption leveled against people involved with the Vatican bank — including the arrest of a priest under investigation by the Vatican and Italian authorities — Pope Francis appointed former Vatican diplomat Monsignor Battista Ricca to be his representative at the IOR.

Not long after that, Italian journalist Sandro Magister published allegations of immoral behavior by Ricca that allegedly took place in Uruguay in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The Vatican dismissed the reports, causing Magister’s publication to defend him.

But Ricca is still in his post. During the airplane press conference, Pope Francis addressed the matter, saying (in the Vatican’s official English translation), “About Monsignor Ricca: I did what canon law calls for, that is a preliminary investigation” — italics theirs — “and from this investigation, there was nothing of what had been alleged. We did not find anything of that. This is the response.”

Then the pontiff launched into a brief catechesis on sin, repentance, and forgiveness, saying, “But I wish to add something else: I see that many times in the Church, over and above this case, but including this case, people search for ‘sins from youth,’ for example, and publish them. They are not crimes, right? Crimes are something different: the abuse of minors is a crime.

“No, sins. But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets, and this is very important in our lives. When we confess our sins, and we truly say, ‘I have sinned in this,’ the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins,” he said. “That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin.”

So, one can extrapolate from this that either the allegations weren’t true and were fabricated by someone perhaps looking to unseat Ricca and derail reform; or that they were true and were covered up by the Vatican’s infamous “gay lobby” (since the reports involved homosexual improprieties) to protect Ricca; or, they were true but Ricca repented, was forgiven, and now it’s nobody’s business unless it happens again.

In all likelihood, we’ve heard the last of this flap for now, at least. But the Vatican bank issue continues.

On Aug. 8, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio (which translates to “on one’s own initiative,” one being the pope, who also personally signs the document), called “For the Prevention and Countering of Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

The document aims to increase Vatican safeguards on money laundering by strengthening the supervisory powers of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority. In a statement, the Vatican said this was in response to a recommendation of the Moneyval Commission, a European watchdog group that looked into the IOR last year.

The motu proprio also extends existing Vatican financial laws not only to the IOR but also to the dicasteries (or departments) of the Roman Curia (the Vatican’s administrative apparatus) and other organizations dependent on the Holy See, along with “nonprofit” organizations that make financial transfers and fall under the jurisdiction of the Vatican City State.

In addition, it establishes a Financial Security Committee to oversee the new regulations, chaired by American Monsignor Peter Wells.

The ultimate goal is to increase accountability and transparency of Vatican finances, not only to please the faithful but also the world monetary community, which includes institutions with problems of their own.

In early August, HSBC chose to close the Vatican bank’s accounts and those of dozens of other foreign missions in London, including Papua New Guinea and Benin. This comes after U.S. authorities levied $1.9 billion in fines last year on HSBC for, according to Forbes, not money laundering itself but “not following the regulations about how to monitor and prevent money laundering.”

But there’s also talk that Francis may close the Vatican Bank anyway in the future to encourage fiscal discipline and accountability, echoing actions he took while Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

And then there’s the Twitter flap involving the lone Italian member of a new, eight-member pontifical commission composed of lay business and legal experts and tasked with overseeing accounting practices throughout the Vatican.

Beautiful young Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, a former communications manager for multinational professional services firm Ernst & Young, got herself in hot water recently for some strange, inaccurate tweets about Vatican affairs (sent out prior to her being named to the commission) and for appearing to be Twitter chums with journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi of Vatileaks fame. He’s the one who received stolen documents from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s butler, touching off a considerable scandal.

Now, Giulio Tremonti, a former Italian economy minister under three-time Italian prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi — who was recently convicted of tax fraud and for having sex with an under-aged prostitute — is suing Chaouqui over a tweet that read, “Tremonti held an account with the (Vatican Bank). They shut it down when they found out he is gay.”

The comment was later published in Il Giornale, a daily newspaper published in Milan, Italy.

As quoted in the Gazzetta del Sud, Tremonti said, “I am taking legal action against (Francesca) Immacolata Chaoqui as well as (newspaper) employees and publishers.”

Regarding the allegations in the tweet, Tremonti said, “Given that I have absolutely nothing to do with (either), I’m sure to win in court.”

In a statement that echoes the early days of former congressman and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s Twitter troubles, Chaouqui is reported to have claimed that someone gained access to her account and tweeted the messages, and that images of the tweets in the media have been altered.

In a statement to the newspaper Corriere della Sera, supposedly “approved by Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi,” Chaouqui said, “I’m not worried, because the Holy Father is not worried.”

While there remain questions about Monsignor Ricca’s past deeds, it appears that Chaouqui — like many indiscreet users of social media before her — may have to get herself out a mess of her own making.

Oh, and there are some “semi nude” photos of Chaouqui and a man (possibly her husband) on YouTube (now removed).

No word on whether Facebook or Google+ are yet involved.