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Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who has been caught up in a real estate scandal, speaks to the media a day after he resigned suddenly on Sept. 25, 2020.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

Michael W. Higgins is interim president of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges, a senior fellow at Massey College, and the author of The Church Needs the Laity: The Wisdom of John Henry Newman.

It has been a decade of surprises at the highest ranks in the Vatican: a pope resigned, a butler was imprisoned (and then pardoned), cardinals have been shuffled out, and a mighty dollop of internal restructuring has been applied, putting teeth on edge and upturning careers.

Welcome to the world of the Francis pontificate. There have been firsts on several fronts: women appointed to senior levels of Vatican governance, new legislation enacted to hold high-ranking prelates accountable for flawed leadership on sex abuse cases (no more free exit for bishops), and unprecedented modelling at the Church’s highest level, with Pope Francis living in modest digs, eschewing the perks of office and thinking nothing of breaking with convention.

But the biggest challenge yet is not the reform of the offices of the Vatican Curia; in spite of solid resistance, the reform is unfolding and remains focused. What Pope Francis still needs to get a handle on is the byzantine complexities of Vatican finance.

Last month brought another first, in this regard. Cardinal Angelo Becciu – the former chief of staff (or sostituto) in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State – was put on trial in the Vatican before a panel of lay and not clerical judges to face several allegations of financial corruption. The charges relate specifically to a property investment in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Many officials have been implicated in the shady deal; the Sardinian cardinal, however, is the most prominent among them, and he has fiercely protested his innocence, insisting on attending the trial personally when most of the others indicted have opted to be judged in absentia. The trial lasted one day only, to be adjourned until Oct. 5 at the request of the defense.

This is not the first time Vatican bishops have been accused of financial skullduggery. Indeed, many lower-ranking clergy, monsignori, have even been sentenced and jailed in the past, especially under Pope Francis’s methodical purge of venality in the Holy See. But bishops – and cardinals in particular – have never been subject to a public trial on issues of financial mismanagement. And while the charges have yet to be proven in court, it is worth noting that Cardinal Becciu – a seasoned Vatican official who has professed strong allegiance to Pope Francis – was removed from office by his boss.

What is perhaps most surprising is the simple fact of a cardinal being indicted by the Vatican itself. Cardinals recently have been indicted in other jurisdictions, including George Pell in Australia (who was jailed and then acquitted) and Theodore McCarrick in the United States (who was deprived of his clerical status by Pope Francis and recently sentenced to jail). A fully transparent in-house trial of a cardinal for alleged complicity in financial wrongdoing is a startling innovation.

Of course, there were rumblings and purgings before Pope Francis. In 1987, I spoke to Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the director of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (the Vatican Bank), who was livid that the then-secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was throwing him under the bus over the lingering aftershocks of the 1982 collapse of the Milan-headquartered Banco Ambrosiano, which cost the Vatican a small fortune. At one point Archbishop Marcinkus remarked: “they wouldn’t treat an altar boy this way.” It wasn’t an ideal analogy.

When our interview ended, he mentioned that he was going golfing with comic legend Bob Hope, then a nonagenarian convert and friend of his. When I inquired how he could leave the Vatican sovereignty while subpoenaed by the Italian authorities, he said that Bob would pick him up by helicopter and that the carabinieri would be waving from the Palazzo di San Pietro. It doesn’t get much more Felliniesque than this.

Archbishop Marcinkus, an avuncular plain-speaking Lithuanian-American from Chicago, was never charged, and he eventually left to retire in Arizona, where he died in 2006. He was persuaded that his Curial enemies did him in, made him a scapegoat for their fiscal mismanagement, and had little time for American-style reform.

Previous popes have wrestled with the financial flummery of the Vatican, including Paul VI and John Paul II (as well as John Paul I, though he barely survived a month). But the man that Vatican commentator Robert Mickens calls the “iron pope” might be the one to actually bring the monster to heel.

When Francis became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, personal austerity and economic probity defined his leadership. Now, as Bishop of Rome, we are seeing the same. And whether he is found guilty or if he is exonerated, Cardinal Becciu’s trial is guaranteed to be a game changer.

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