Questions about Vatican finances have dogged the Church for decades. In 2012, leaked documents revealed allegations of extensive cronyism and money laundering; these documents suggested, for example, that the Church’s main charitable mission, Peter’s Pence, was being used to fund the lavish lifestyle of some members of the clergy. Though Pope Benedict XVI had attempted to institute financial auditing procedures, his efforts proved insufficient, and the scandal was widely seen as part of the reason for his controversial decision to resign the papacy. Unfortunately, the scandals have continued under Pope Francis. In 2015, the Church purchased a bankrupt Italian hospital in part with money borrowed illicitly from a publicly funded Italian hospital; the transaction, arranged off-the-books, was partly coordinated by a Swiss bank with a reputation for money laundering. In 2019, it was revealed that the Vatican had invested roughly $200 million, at least in part from Peter’s Pence, in luxury real estate in London. The purchase was partially financed through a since-discredited Swiss bank, and the loans were not properly recorded in the Vatican’s internal records. It was also revealed that the Vatican was investing millions of dollars through the Centurion Global Fund, which is connected to the same Swiss bank that ran the London purchase, as well as to a pair of banks that have been linked to a Venezuelan bribery and money-laundering scandal. While it is possible that some or all of these transactions may prove to have been the product of poor financial decision-making rather than corruption, these and other incidents have called into question the Church’s management of its finances as well as the integrity of its internal watchdog mechanisms
Pope Francis, who ascended to the papacy with promises of reform, has publicly acknowledged that there is corruption within Vatican finances and has pursued measures to restore confidence in the Church’s financial management. However, many of his attempts to institute more rigorous reforms have been frustrated by internal Vatican power struggles. For instance, in 2016 the powerful Archbishop Giovanni Becciu unilaterally stopped a scheduled audit of Vatican finances, and in 2017 the Vatican’s auditor-general was forced out of office, allegedly after finding evidence of financial irregularities. But in late 2019, Pope Francis stepped up his efforts to crack down on malfeasance and get the Vatican’s financial house in order. Francis took a particularly high-profile step in October 2019, when he appointed one of Italy’s leading antimafia magistrates, Giuseppe Pignatone (who retired from the Italian judiciary in May 2019), as head of the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, which is tasked with investigating corruption and fraud, among other crimes. Although some have portrayed Pignatone’s appointment as a sign of desperation by a Pope who cannot control his own bureaucracy, this choice was in fact a wise move by Francis to consolidate his reformist agenda. Pignatone’s former position as one of Italy’s most prestigious antimafia magistrates means that he is particularly well-placed to address Vatican corruption, for three reasons.
- First, appointing Pignatone signals that Pope Francis takes the anticorruption effort seriously. Pignatone has been at the vanguard of many of Italy’s most complex prosecutions. He coordinated the investigation that led to the 2006 capture of Bernardo Provenzano, Cosa Nostra’s so-called “boss of bosses,” who had been on the run for over 40 years. Pignatone also led prosecution efforts against the ‘Ndrangheta in Reggio Calabria. Perhaps most famously, he led the investigation into the Mafia Capitale scandal, which revealed criminal corruption at the highest levels of the Roman municipal government. These efforts have made him one of the most recognized figures in Italian justice. By choosing an antimafia prosecutor who is so well regarded, Pope Francis has demonstrated that efforts to combat corruption are being treated with seriousness by the Church.
- Second, Pignatone has particularly useful professional skills for this task. There may be some concerns about appointing as the head of the Vatican Tribunal an individual with no training or experience in the Vatican criminal or financial system. (Pignatone’s predecessor, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, had a more traditional insider’s pedigree—he wrote his doctoral dissertation on canon law and was deeply involved in the Vatican legal system for decades.) But this is not a huge problem, since Vatican criminal law is based primarily on the Italian system, with some elements of canon law. More importantly, the unique professional skills that Pignatone brings to the Tribunal compensate for his inexperience with Vatican law. Antimafia cases in Italy are highly complex, and are often built on extensive financial investigation. Moreover, the most high-profile of these cases have tended to focus on the intersection of organized crime and political corruption. Accordingly, a leading antimafia prosecutor would be well-prepared to understand highly complex financial crimes and to effectively coordinate the investigation into such crimes.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, Pignatone is likely to be able to resist any attempts by Vatican officials to interfere with his investigations. Observers of Vatican politics consistently noted the ability of the Vatican bureaucracy to apply pressure to those who conduct investigations they don’t like. Pignatone’s outsider status is likely to help him resist such pressure more effectively than someone whose career has been built within the Church. Indeed, Pignatone has a demonstrated track record of pursuing investigations against the interests of powerful individuals within his own country’s government. And of course prosecuting organized crime can be downright dangerous in Italy. (To take but one example, during Pignatone’s investigations into the ‘Ndrangheta, a rocket launcher was found to be pointed directly at his office window.) After having demonstrated his willingness to doggedly pursue investigations even when his personal safety was under direct threat, it’s unlikely that Pignatone would be susceptible to pressure from Vatican bureaucrats.
These factors don’t guarantee that Giuseppe Pignatone will be successful in combating the corruption that has been endemic to the Vatican. The Holy See has long been known for its financial and procedural opacity, and relatively little information has been released about the state of the investigations. However, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. In March 2020, the pontiff announced new legislation designed to enhance the size and independence of the Tribunal, as well as the prestige of its members. This is encouraging evidence that Francis is serious about ensuring the Tribunal has the powers it needs. Francis’ appointment of Pignatone may well prove to be a critical first step in addressing Vatican corruption. Surely the Catholic world will be praying for his success.