Roman Collar gets collared in Rome
[August 8, 2013]
A prominent Vatican monsignor has popped into the news over the past several weeks, becoming a sideshow to the continuing Main Attraction of Papa Francesco’s effort to get a grip on the Curia Romana.
The pope’s ‘oceanic crowds’ in Brazil (reminiscent of John Paul’s rapturous reception in Poland in the summer of 1979), and his free-form 80-minute exchange with the press during his bumpy return flight to Rome on July 29-30 (“who am I to judge” gay priests), have drawn most of the media attention, but the sideshow involving the monsignor illustrates the dangerous issues facing Papa Francesco as the afterglow of Rio fades:
Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a high official in the Vatican’s holding entity ‘APSA’, has been a guest of the Italian Republic in Rome’s Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) prison since June 28 last, and through a tantalizing letter made public seems inclined to sing in basso profondo (as in, how low does he plan to go?).
The backstory is an intensified fight over reforming the Vatican Bank
As widely reported in the Italian media, on June 28 last Monsignor Scarano was arrested at Rome’s general aviation airport, Ciampino, upon arrival from Switzerland on a private jet, in the company of a former member of an Italian intelligence agency and a financial consultant. A search of Scarano’s personal effects produced €20 million in cash (about $27 million). At the time of his arrest Scarano was the chief accountant for ‘APSA’ (the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See), i.e. the organizational entity for most of the Vatican’s earthly goods held directly in the name of the Holy See. By his own account, Scarano has been at APSA for 22 years.
A self-described friend of Scarano’s going back several years, Massimiliano Marcianò, is currently under interrogation by prosecutors in Salerno, and claims that the monsignor told him that the Holy See’s diplomatic pouch was used by Scarano to move money and documents, and that “this method was used to move funds [capitali] of the great families of Italian capitalism thereby hiding the origins thanks to the Vatican’s diplomatic immunity.” In a three-page letter to the pope, reported by the muck-raking daily Il Fatto Quotidiano on July 25, Scarano claims,
“I have never recycled dirty money, and I have never stolen,..”
The monsignor also writes that he has in his possession documentation proving his innocence, and mentions two cardinals: Stanislaus Dziwisc (former private secretary to Pope John Paul, and current archbishop of Cracow), and Angelo Sodano (former secretary of state, and current dean of the College of Cardinals). In the newspaper account Scarano states,
“my banking operations at the Ior [the Vatican Bank] have always been made upon the counsel of the direction of the executives…Always in accordance with the canonical law of the Ior.”
The timing of Scarano’s arrest (very probably the result of a tip) was particularly inconvenient for the Holy See, coming as it did less than two weeks after the Vatican’s announcement, on June 15, of the appointment of Monsignor Battista Ricca as the pope’s watchdog over the Vatican Bank (prelato per l’Istituto per le Opere di Religione).
Here the plot thickens. Just a few weeks after the official announcement of Monsignor Ricca’s appointment, on July 18 one of the savviest media Vatican watchers, Sandro Magister, ran an jaw-dropping column in one of Italy’s most widely-read weeklies, L’Espresso, titled La Lobby Gay. Obviously sourced from Magister’s network of very high-level Curia sources, the column gives considerable detail about some ‘scandalous’ episodes in Ricca’s career going back to his service in Uruguay as a member of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission…while none of his behavior appears to rise to the level of a crime, and does not involve minors, the specificity of the reporting plausibly suggests imprudent behavior, ‘conduct unbecoming…’
What is noteworthy is the deep game within the Vatican now unfolding in public: imagine (wild hypothetical example) that the President appoints a special assistant, reporting directly to him, to delve into the activities of Fannie Mae (or better still, the Federal Reserve), after the usual FBI vetting. And then, a few weeks after the announcement, details surface about three embarrassing episodes in that staffer’s private life.
During the long return flight from Rio to Rome, ‘Francesco unplugged’ dismissed the reports about Monsignor Ricca, saying that an investigation “found nothing.” It is worth bearing in mind that, as reported in The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed column by Stacy Meichtry of July 30, Francesco’s ‘Who am I to judge’ quote came up in this context:
“The pope’s reports on homosexuality were prompted by a reporter who asked the pontiff to comment on a report..alleging that [Monsignor] Battista Ricca…[etc.]”
Strictly speaking, the pope’s famous quote was not a shift of position on the entire gay issue, but addressed the issue of gay clergy. And even in that framework, it arose from a specific individual case that was awkward for the Vatican, not necessarily a blanket statement of all gay clergy.
Perhaps that is what prompted New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan somewhat dismissive comment later, that the pope’s remark about judging gays came while Francesco was “on a high” from the reception he got in Brazil. Given developments now emerging from the bankruptcy proceedings of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, headed by His Eminence between 2002 and 2009, I would guess that Dolan will be able to keep his own euphoria under firm control. Worth a separate post, soon.
Game on: the next chapters in the saga of the Ior, and – probably APSA – are sequels to the VatiLeaks story that surfaced in May of 2012. And Francesco may be losing control over the Curia reform agenda as the focus becomes the damned Vatican bank, and the Curia’s internecine war by media proxies intensifies.
A couple of Latin quotes come to mind:
Regarding Monsignor Scarano and the money trail, there is an old adage from Imperial Rome, a slur directed at those greedy vassals, the Egyptians:
Unus illis Deus nummus est (the only God they worship is money)
Regarding Monsignor Ricca and his escapades by the shores of the Rio Plata, an old Jesuit saying:
Si non caste, tamen caute (free translation, if you can’t control your tool, at least play it cool)