Damian Thompson

The hit job on Cardinal Pell was inevitable: he’s cleaning out the Vatican stables

The hit job on Cardinal Pell was inevitable: he's cleaning out the Vatican stables
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Ever since Cardinal George Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to clean up the Vatican's finances, I knew a hit job was coming; and I was doubly certain when he spoke up for orthodox cardinals when their views were being trashed by the liberal organisers of the chaotic 'Carry On Synod' on the Family.

The Sydney Morning Herald, no fan of Pell in his days as Archbishop of Sydney, has accused him of 'living it up at the Holy See's expense'. They cite leaked documents purporting to show he rented an office and apartment in Rome at a cost of £2,580 a month – which, unless I've got the figures wrong, isn't very expensive. Plus £1,270 on 'religious robes'. Oh, for God's sake. As a senior cardinal, Pell is required to wear a soutane plus other bits of church uniform, and since he's massively tall with a rugby player's build I'm guessing they can't come off the peg.

[Update: I now learn that the robes were for the chapel in the Secretariat which had no vestments at all. So they're not Cardinal Pell's – they're for any priest using the chapel.]

He travels business class, too. As he should. Again, this is one hell of a big bloke, getting on a bit, with heart problems and a terrifyingly ambitious brief from Francis. It didn't take him long to identify hundreds of thousands of euros hidden in the Vatican accounts. He revealed this in an article for the Catholic Herald, at which point we all knew that the Vatican mafia would arrange for him to have a little PR 'accident'.

As this article in Crux explains, Pell's Secretariat for the Economy this week formally required all heads of Vatican departments 'to certify in writing that they’ve provided complete and accurate information'. This has never happened before, and the old boys from the Curia are flouncing around Rome like offended dowagers. There are rumours that, as an emergency measure, they've reduced the length of their lunches in the Borgo Pio trattorie from four to three hours.

Here's the Secretariat for the Economy's rebuttal of the claims about Cardinal Pell:

Reports of a discussion between the Holy Father and Cardinal Pell about expenditure by the Secretariat are completely false – there has been no discussion between the Holy Father and Cardinal Pell about such matters. Claims of a conversation are a complete fiction. Since March 2014 when the Secretariat was initiated, the operational costs of the Secretariat, which include some initial set up costs, were in fact below the budget set when the office was established.

The Secretariat currently has twelve staff working on implementing new financial management routines to improve transparency and accountability. The Secretariat will shortly present to the Council for the Economy the Audited Financial Statements for 2014. This will include a detailed account of all Vatican entities, including the Secretariat for the Economy ... Finally and for the record, Cardinal Pell does not have a Cappa Magna.

The cappa magna is the long red cope that cardinals and bishops wore before the Second Vatican Council. Pell borrows one once in a blue moon if he's at a traditional ceremony and he's asked to put it on. It's not his style, though: he's an Australian, after all, and he has no time for the camp haberdashery favoured by certain traddies, including Cardinal Burke. Last time I saw him he was dressed as a priest, not a cardinal, in a battered suit and Clark's cheap comfy shoes, staying in a hostel rather than a hotel, and he didn't want to waste money on a taxi when he could take a brisk 30-minute walk across the city.

Cardinal Pell is not only sorting out the Vatican's finances at an extraordinary pace; he's also upsetting all the right people – sleek monsignori who exchange back-handers and morsels of poisonous gossip as they eye up the pudding trolley (and sometimes the waiter pushing it). If this is the best they can do, George Pell can rest easy.