After a massive consultation of Catholics around the world and a Vatican summit to discuss the future of the church, Pope Francis has directed theologians to tread new paths, shift paradigms and embrace synodality.
In a decree issued Nov. 1, Pope Francis challenged the Pontifical Theological Academy — the body tasked with instructing Catholic theologians — to embrace an evolving theology that cannot be limited to “abstractly rehashing formulas and patterns from the past.”
“A synodal, missional and ‘outgoing’ church can only correspond to an ‘outgoing’ theology,” Francis wrote in the decree, also known as a motu proprio. “Theological reflections are hence called to a turning point, a paradigm shift, ‘a brave cultural revolution,’” the pope added, emphasizing such a theology must meet people in the concrete reality of their lives, culture and environment.
According to the theologian Leonardo Paris, who teaches philosophy at the Romano Guardini Institute of Religious Sciences, the new papal bull is asking theologians to help realize Francis’ vision for a church that is open to today’s realities.
“In the document we can see that the pope is aware of the need for theological tools that will ensure that synodality, and new questions that arise, are properly addressed,” Paris told Religion News Service on Tuesday (Nov. 7).
Pope Francis recently concluded the so-called Synod on Synodality, a monthlong (Oct. 4-29) gathering of Catholic bishops and lay Catholic faithful at the Vatican to discuss some of the most hot-button issues in the church. The lively conversations that occurred touched on LGBTQ inclusion, female ordination and the possibility of married priesthood, as laid out in a synthesis document published Oct. 28.
On many issues the synthesis called for continued study by experts and theologians, taking into account other disciplines, including science and psychology. Specifically, on the issue of whether women can be ordained deacons — who can preach at Mass but not hear confessions or celebrate the Eucharist — the synod assembly called for more theological research ahead of their next meeting in the fall of 2024.
In an interview with the Italian news channel TG1, Francis asked for a theology that could recognize that “the power of the Woman Church and of women in the church is greater and more important than that of male ministers. Mary is more important than Peter, because the Church is woman.” This aspect cannot be reduced to a simple question of ordination, the pope stated.
“I think the pope is being sincere,” Paris said. “It’s a complicated issue and the pope wants to offer an answer that isn’t simply cultural or emotional, but also theological.”
Pope Francis’ approach to theology has evolved over the years. When he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he criticized theologians for being more concerned with abstract ideas than the real lives of people. In his 10 years as pope, Francis has often remarked that the “pueblo fiel,” Spanish for the faithful, have an infallible intuition on Catholic teaching.
“To know what to believe one must look to the authority, but to know how to believe one must look to the faithful,” explained Massimo Borghesi, a philosopher at the University of Perugia and author of “The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.”
According to Pope Francis, when authority becomes separated from the faith of the people it falls into clericalism, the belief that clergy hold a higher status within the church. “The church breathes through two lungs, the institution and charisms, the people and the authority,” Borghesi said, laying out the pope’s views.
Francis’ answer to the separation between the hierarchy and the faithful is synodality — an openness to dialogue and encounter with those of differing experiences and perspectives — which he is attempting to inject into every aspect of the church, including theology.
Theology is called to be “a transcendent knowledge, which is at the same time attentive to the voice of the people, hence a ‘popular theology,’” Francis wrote in his decree. To do this, theologians must embrace dialogue with different traditions and religions, “openly engaging with everyone, believers and non-believers,” he added.
This is nothing new, according to Paris, who said this understanding of theology was already enshrined in “Lumen Gentium,” Latin for “Light of Nations,” the final document emerging from the Second Vatican Council in 1964. “Following the council, this is the direction that theology has undertaken, or at least attempted to,” he said.
Of course, he added, engaging with literature is easier for theologians than engaging with highly specialized sciences. “Understanding quantum mechanics is not exactly a walk in the park,” Paris said.
There is some pushback against Francis’ vision for a “theologian who smells of the flock,” Paris admitted. “Lately in the church there is a polarization that seems to suggest that engaging in contextual dialogue is something new,” he said, pointing to “theological, but also ideological and cultural tensions.”
In the interview, Pope Francis criticized reactionaries “who don’t accept that the church moves forward.” Instead, the church must grow “like the fruit of the tree, but always attached to its roots,” the pope said.
Francis has often quoted fifth-century St. Vincent of Lérins, who laid out a vision for the harmonious development of Catholic teaching that is “consolidated through the years, developed over time, refined by age.” On the death penalty, on slavery and even on atomic weapons, doctrine has changed, the pope said, suggesting there is no reason why it shouldn’t change some more.
Pope Francis has revoked retired Cardinal Raymond Burke’s salary and his right to a subsidized apartment in the Vatican.
The staunchly anti-LGBTQ+ Burke has been one of the most vocal critics of the pope’s outreach to the queer community and other liberal moves.
“Francis told a meeting of the heads of Vatican offices last week that he was moving against Burke because he was a source of ‘disunity’ in the church,” the Associated Press reports, citing an anonymous source. Burke hadn’t received any notice of the action as of Tuesday, his secretary told the AP. A Vatican spokesman contacted by The New York Timeswouldn’t confirm or deny the report.
“Almost as soon as Pope Francis became the head of the Roman Catholic church in 2013,” the Times notes, Burke “emerged as his leading critic from within the church, becoming a de facto antipope for frustrated traditionalists who believed Francis was diluting doctrine.”
Most recently, Burke was one of five retired cardinals who submitted questions to the pope on his stances on a variety of issues, including marriage equality and same-sex unions, women in the priesthood, and who is the ultimate worldly authority of the Catholic Church. Francis responded by indicating he would be open to some form of blessing for same-sex unions, although he said they should not be considered marriages, and said the ordination of women “can be the object of study.” He did not make any definitive changes, however.
Burke’s anti-LGBTQ+ views are in keeping with church doctrine that gay sex is a sin and that gender is fixed at birth, but he has often been more hostile to the LGBTQ+ community than other Catholic leaders.
In 2003, as a bishop of Wisconsin, he ordered the church-supported Central Wisconsin HIV/AIDS Ministry Project to cease participating in the state’s AIDS walk or accepting any of the funds raised because, he said, some of the other groups that benefit from the walk “actively and publicly promote homosexual activity.”
Burke went on to become archbishop of St. Louis, where he served from 2004 to 2008, then headed the church’s highest court. He was appointed to the court position by Francis’s immediate predecessor, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, but was removed from that post by Francis in 2014. He has continued speaking out against the LGBTQ+ community as a retired cardinal.
In March 2020, as many churches began holding services remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said faithful Catholics should attend Mass in person to fight changes in the culture, including recognition of transgender identity. “We need only to think of the pervasive attack upon the integrity of human sexuality, of our identity as man or woman, with the pretense of defining for ourselves, often employing violent means, a sexual identity other than that given to us by God,” he wrote on his website at the time. “With ever greater concern, we witness the devastating effect on individuals and families of the so-called ‘gender theory.’”
Burke was a COVID vaccine skeptic, even repeating a conspiracy theory that vaccines included microchips with which governments could monitor people’s movements. He contracted COVID in 2021.
This is Pope Francis’s second recent action against a major critic. This month he removed Bishop Joseph Strickland as head of the diocese of Tyler, Texas. Strickland had accused Francis of undermining the faith through his tentatively liberal moves, including his welcoming attitude toward LGBTQ+ people.
As Charles Richardson gradually lost his eyesight to complications from diabetes, certain childhood memories haunted him even more.
The Catholic priest appeared vividly in his mind’s eye — the one who promised him a spot on a travel basketball team, took him out for burgers and helped him with homework. The one, Richardson alleges, who sexually assaulted him for more than a year.
“I’ve been seeing him a lot lately,” Richardson said during a recent interview, dabbing tears from behind dark glasses.
As a Black middle schooler from northwest Baltimore, Richardson started spending time with the Rev. Henry Zerhusen, a charismatic white cleric. It was the 1970s and Zerhusen’s parish, St. Ambrose, was a fixture in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, which was then experiencing the effects of white flight and rapidly becoming majority-Black. Lauded as a “super-priest” when he died in 2003, Zerhusen welcomed his church’s racial integration and implemented robust social service programs for struggling families, including Richardson’s.
For most of his life, Richardson kept the abuse a secret, a common experience for survivors of sexual abuse. But cases of clergy abuse among African Americans are especially underreported, according to experts, who argue the lack of attention adds to the trauma of an already vulnerable population.
Black survivors like Richardson have been nearly invisible in the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis — even in Baltimore, home to a historic Black Catholic community that plays an integral role in the nation’s oldest archdiocese. The U.S. Catholic Church generally does not publicly track the race or ethnicity of clergy abuse victims. Without that data, the full scope of clergy sex abuse and its effects on communities of color is unknown.
“Persons of color have suffered a long legacy of neglect and marginalization in the Catholic Church,” said the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a Black Catholic priest and Fordham University professor whose research has focused on the issue. “We need to correct the idea that all or most of the victims of this abuse have been white and male.”
Earlier this year, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office released a scathing report on child sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Baltimore dating back several decades. The report documents more than 600 abuse cases but leaves out any context about race. There are clues, however, in the names of priests and churches listed.
Out of 27 parishes in the archdiocese that have significant Black populations, at least 19 — 70% — previously had priests on staff who have been accused of sexual abuse, according to an Associated Press analysis. For parishes that experienced demographic shifts over time, these abusers were in residence in the years after Black membership increased and white membership declined.
Among those affected is St. Francis Xavier, one of the nation’s oldest Black Catholic churches, where four abusive priests have served over the decades. The parish’s first Black pastor, the late Rev. Carl Fisher, has been accused of abusing several children at St. Veronica’s, another majority-Black parish he served.
In 2013, decades after Richardson’s alleged abuse, Zerhusen faced accusations from another victim — the grandson of a woman who worked at St. Ambrose for 40 years. In response to that claim, two monsignors called Zerhusen “saintly” and unlikely to abuse, according to the attorney general’s report. The archdiocese ultimately settled with the victim for $32,500 and added Zerhusen to their list of credibly accused priests this past July.
Christian Kendzierski, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said he was just learning of Richardson’s allegation about the late Zerhusen when contacted by the AP and didn’t have information on it.
Zerhusen worked with other abusive priests, including at St. Ambrose. At two more parishes, including after he was elevated to monsignor, he supervised four other priests later credibly accused of child sex abuse.
The last time Zerhusen abused him, Richardson said, he jumped out a stained-glass window to escape the church’s sanctuary, landing on the ground outside. In Richardson’s account, Zerhusen accompanied him to the hospital and told a doctor he landed on a Coke bottle playing football. Richardson still bears scars on his elbow that he attributes to the fall.
But the emotional scars have never healed. Until recently, he had never told his wife or adult daughters about the assaults.
Richardson dropped out of high school not long after the abuse. An aspiring professional tennis player, his game suffered, and he later became a car salesman. He still sometimes struggles when interacting with other men, especially in medical settings and situations involving physical contact.
As Black men, “we have a reputation we have to carry with us, a façade,” he said. “Something like this is one of the worst things — to say you have been raped or touched by another man.”
Not long after release of the attorney general’s report, Maryland lawmakers voted to repeal the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims to sue. At age 58, Richardson retained a lawyer and decided to go public.
Ray Kelly, a lifelong Catholic and chair of the pastoral council at St. Peter Claver, a Black parish in west Baltimore, said the archdiocese has repeatedly failed to address racial disparities, a trend that extends far beyond the clergy abuse crisis.
In response to the 2020 racial justice protests, Kelly helped lead a working group convened by the Baltimore archbishop that focused on combating racism, but he said the archdiocese took little action after receiving the group’s recommendations.
He pointed to the Catholic Church’s long history of treating African Americans like second-class citizens — beginning in Baltimore with the founding of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1829, when four Black women started their own religious order after being rejected by an existing sisterhood. One of the founders, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, is now being considered for sainthood.
The aftermath of the Civil War brought another new religious order to Baltimore: The Josephites were founded to minister to recently freed slaves. But despite their mission, for decades they largely did not admit Black men into the priesthood. The archdiocese now lists at least five Josephite priests as credibly accused of abuse.
“The Americanized Catholic Church still sees the Black population as a perpetual charity case, so to speak,” Kelly said. “And the predators are going to go where the prey is — Black communities relying on the church for support.”
Kendzierski, the archdiocese spokesperson, said its leaders have taken significant steps to address the church’s legacy of racism. He said the archdiocese’s Office of Black Catholic Ministry works to “lift up our Catholic social teaching related to the dignity of the human person and ensure worship is inclusive of the scope of the Catholic culture.”
In some cases, the church’s charity programs allowed abusers to reach African Americans who were not regulars at Mass. Richardson, for instance, was raised Baptist, but his family still relied on the local Catholic church for food, home repairs and other resources — a scenario that experts say is surprisingly common.
Abuse also came from within the Black community. Among the alleged perpetrators were some of the archdiocese’s few Black Catholic leaders.
When he was ordained in 1974, Maurice Blackwell was a celebrated rarity: a homegrown Black priest from west Baltimore. In the years since, he has been accused of sexually abusing at least 10 boys under 18, most at majority-Black parishes he pastored.
Darrell Carter alleges he was one of Blackwell’s victims. Now 63, he recently decided to sue under the new state law, which went into effect Oct. 1.
Carter’s father took him to Mass as a child. Before dying of cancer, he told Carter to find a Catholic church if he was ever in need: “They will help you.”
Money was scarce at home, and Carter often went hungry. As a teen, he visited St. Bernardine and later St. Edward — Black Catholic churches helmed by Blackwell — looking for odd jobs like shoveling snow to earn money. Instead, he said, Blackwell sexually abused him for four years and paid him $25 each time. Carter said Blackwell brandished a gun and threatened to kill him if he told anyone.
Carter said he reported the abuse to the archdiocese several years later, hoping to have Blackwell removed from ministry, but nothing came of it. The archdiocese said it received a report of Carter’s abuse in 2019 and reported it to law enforcement. Blackwell didn’t respond to recent messages seeking comment.
Carter went on to have a family and a welding career. He also struggled with alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and maintaining stable housing. Of the sexual abuse, he said, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it.”
Carter’s attorney, Joanne Suder, who also represents Richardson and many other clergy abuse victims in Baltimore, said it’s common for people to wait decades before disclosing their abuse. She said that’s often the case even as they experience its debilitating impacts, including struggles with mental health and addiction.
In 2002, another of Blackwell’s victims — a young Black man named Dontee Stokes — showed up at the priest’s Baltimore rowhome, pulled out a handgun and shot Blackwell after he refused to apologize. The shooting became a defining event in Baltimore’s mishandling of clergy sex abuse claims, just as the scope of the crisis was breaking open in Boston.
Blackwell survived, and Stokes was later acquitted of attempted murder. He served 18 months of home detention for gun charges.
Stokes had reported the abuse nearly a decade before the shooting, but police never filed charges. Although the archdiocese found the claims credible, Cardinal William Keeler, then Baltimore’s archbishop, returned Blackwell to ministry against the advice of an independent review board. A psychiatrist who evaluated Blackwell noted the difficult situation, given his “leadership in the African American community as well as the intensely positive feelings of his parishioners.” Finally in 1998, Blackwell was removed from ministry after another victim came forward.
But it was only after the 2002 shooting that Blackwell was formally laicized and criminally charged. Despite being convicted of three counts of child sexual abuse, he was granted a new trial because of the “improper testimony about possible other victims,” according to the attorney general’s report. Prosecutors ultimately declined to retry him.
“Nobody got any closure,” said another of Blackwell’s victims, who received a settlement from the archdiocese.
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing being ostracized from his community if he publicly discussed his abuse. The AP generally does not identify sexual abuse victims without their consent. A runaway teen in the mid-1970s, the man ended up living in St. Bernardine’s rectory, where he said Blackwell sexually abused him. He came forward to support Stokes at trial.
For speaking out against Blackwell, the man got angry phone calls from friends and family members. “When you have somebody as popular as him, how can you knock the priest off his throne?” he said.
Blackwell remains popular, according to people in the community.
Gloria Webster also remembers feeling shunned by other Black Catholics.
“It was like I was suing God,” said Webster, who pursued criminal and civil charges on behalf of her daughter, who was sexually assaulted as a teenager. “All my friends turned against me.”
In 1990, Angelique Webster became suicidal, admitting she had been sexually abused for years by her white youth pastor, the Rev. Richard Deakin, starting when she was 13. The family lived down the block from the parish, St. Martin, where Gloria was an active volunteer.
Gloria and Angelique struggled to find other Black survivors: One support group for clergy abuse was filled with older white members. Gloria once called Blackwell for spiritual guidance but said she never heard back. Not long afterward, he was accused of abuse himself.
Then a graduate student in African American studies, Gloria was keenly aware of how gender and race played into the subsequent legal proceedings. She said the archdiocese tried to incorrectly “make it out like I’m this poor drug addict” who didn’t deserve support, but she was determined to fight for her daughter.
At the time, Maryland survivors generally had only a few years after the abuse to file a lawsuit, which meant Angelique navigated the case between multiple psychiatric hospitalizations. “I couldn’t hide from it because it was there all the time,” she said in a recent interview.
Deakin pleaded guilty to second-degree rape and child sex abuse, receiving no jailtime with a 20-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation. He had married by then and later became a licensed social worker at a Veterans Affairs facility in Pennsylvania. Because of his conviction, a state board ordered him to avoid counseling anyone under 21, according to licensing records. He surrendered his license in 2018 at the board’s request, which cited the public release of information about his sexual misconduct. He didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
In 1993, the Websters settled out of court for $2.7 million, a staggering sum for the archdiocese, where most settlements fall under $100,000.
The settlement, paid in monthly installments, has allowed Angelique to afford ongoing therapy and maintain financial stability. Now married with a child of her own, she made a short documentary several years ago about Gloria’s fight as a Black woman to sue the Catholic Church.
Survivors coming forward now, including Richardson and Carter, will likely receive smaller settlements since the archdiocese recently declared bankruptcy, allowing it to protect its assets more and shift the litigation to bankruptcy court, a less transparent forum.
“I feel like they are escaping responsibility,” Richardson said.
But for his part, Richardson recently found solace in telling his daughter about the abuse: “A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
He’s retired now, but Richardson recalled a moment that stood out during his long career as a car salesman — when another clergy abuse victim walked into his dealership. That was sometime after Stokes had shot Blackwell, and Richardson recognized him from widespread media coverage of the case. Before selling him a car, Richardson told Stokes he was proud of him for fighting back.
But he couldn’t yet say what he really wanted to share: that it happened to him too. Now, he finally can.
— A Massachusetts priest charged with stealing more than $100,000 reached an agreement with prosecutors in September, admitting in court that enough evidence existed to convict him of a lesser larceny charge than he had originally faced.
But while Fr. Tomaz Gorny was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay back $12,000, the Diocese of Springfield has declined to answer questions about the allegation that he lived with a female parish employee for almost 10 years.
And while the diocese told The Pillar that Gorny is facing a “canonical process,” the priest’s probation agreement indicated that he would petition for a voluntary laicization, leaving questions unanswered, both about Gorny’s unusual history in the Springfield diocese, and about his future.
According to court records obtained by The Pillar, Gorny was ordered to pay $12,000 dollars in restitution to the Springfield diocese, and was placed under probation until September 2025.
The priest’s Massachusetts probation order listed “voluntary laicization” as a condition of his probation, suggesting that the priest had assured prosecutors he would seek to be laicized.
But it is not clear whether the priest is actually petitioning for voluntary laicization, or is instead facing a canonical penal process.
Court records indicate that in 2013 — three years after he was ordained — Gorny moved from the parish rectory where he was assigned into the home of a parish employee.
The priest reportedly lived at the woman’s home from 2013 until late 2022, when the diocese required him to move into a rectory amid an investigation into financial misconduct.
According to court records, the woman told police last year that Gorny became “very comfortable living at the house, and soon began to act like the house was his.”
“This caused issues with her two daughters, who were uncomfortable with Gorny living at the house,” a police affidavit alleged.
The woman told The Pillar in September that she was “not speaking publicly” on the allegations against Gorny.
The Pillar asked the Springfield diocese Monday whether the diocese had had reason to suspect that Fr. Gorny was not living in his parish rectories during the nine years he allegedly lived in the woman’s home, and whether the priest was properly supervised by diocesan officials.
The Pillar also asked whether Gorny’s living situation violated the safe environment policies of the diocese, and if he would face any canonical penal process, either for the canonical crime of concubinage, or for larceny.
But the Springfield diocese said Tuesday it could not answer any questions because of an active but unspecified “canonical process” pertaining to Gorny.
Canon law itself does not prohibit a diocese from providing public information during the course of canonical penal or administrative processes. In 2020, Springfield’s Bishop William Byrne said he would prioritize “transparency” in diocesan handling of clerical misconduct cases.
Transparency and communication are demanded of us, and this will be my priority,” the bishop said.
According to court records obtained by The Pillar, the priest opened between 2019 and 2022 several credit cards on behalf of the Diocese of Springfield and his parish, running up a balance of $99,452 on four accounts.
Gorny also reimbursed himself more than $25,000 for unauthorized or excessive expenses, a police affidavit indicates, including more than $1,300 in monthly food costs during 2022.
The priest allegedly instructed parish employees to give him cash from the parish offertory collection, which he reportedly spent on clothing, wine, and video games. And according to a police affidavit, the priest also fired one parish employee — whom he referred to for a period of time as “Mom” — after she raised concerns about questionable purchases at the parish.
He told The Pillar that it is unsurprising that Gorny received a relatively light sentence in Massachusetts.
Warren noted a possible trend in financial crimes cases related to priests.
He said he had observed several recent criminal cases in which priests accused of stealing significant amounts of money received no jail time, and were in some cases required to pay back only a fraction of what they’d stolen from parishes and dioceses.
The researcher said that across the country, neither criminal prosecutors nor diocesan bishops seem eager to see priests face trial for financial crimes.
“Prosecutors appear reluctant to take these cases to trial because Catholic priests can muddy the issue of what they can buy or not buy by citing canon law, which is confusing to juries,” Warren said.
Those prosecutors have “limited resources, and are reluctant to take cases to trial which have a low ‘return on investigation,’ which means that charges may not result in enough jail time to justify the extra effort to go to trial,” he added.
Bishops, he said, “don’t want to be punitive with offending priests because there are so few priests. Assuming the public scandal isn’t too great, and no sexual misconduct was involved — and sometimes even if there was — bishops are keen on welcoming back the offending priest because Masses still need to be celebrated, babies still need to be baptized, and marriages still need officiating,” he said.
In his experience, Warren said, “what the bishop wants is for the insurance company to pay the claim — thus the need for a police investigation — and for the priest to pay the remainder of the stolen money.”
Warren cited the case of Fr. Kevin Gray, a priest of the Hartford archdiocese, who, Warren said, “once stole a million dollars, abandoned his parish, took up residence with a much younger man, got caught by the police, went to [prison], was released early to go to treatment … and thereafter was returned to ministry as a hospice chaplain.”
He also mentioned Fr. John Regan, a priest of the Diocese of Joliet, who pled guilty in 2011 to stealing $300,000 from an Illinois parish, and was assigned to another Joliet parish the next year, while still on probation.
For his part, Gorny successfully petitioned a judge this week to release his passport, in order for the priest to take a 12-week trip to his native Poland. It is not clear how Gorny, who has already paid back his $12,000 obligation to the diocese, is presently supporting himself financially.
With the Vatican City court due to deliver its verdict in the landmark financial crimes trial in just three weeks, defendant Cardinal Angleo Becciu has once again insisted on his innocence and said he “has faith” he will be acquitted of all charges.
Over the past week, the cardinal and his legal team mounted a full court press in Italian media, with Becciu giving a rare TV interview and his lawyers seeding friendly coverage in local and national newspapers.
Becciu stands accused of embezzlement and abuse of office, conspiracy, as well as perverting the course of justice. But while the cardinal and his team are predicting total exoneration, how confident should they really be about his chances?
“I continue to proclaim my innocence and I can say that I have never stolen,” Becciu said, suggesting that his personal financial circumstances were themselves a kind of proof of his honesty in office at the Secretariat of State, where he oversaw departmental finances until June of 2018.
“I have never improved my economic position. I don’t have villas, I don’t have houses, I don’t have apartments and my accounts are very, very modest.”
But Becciu’s claim to “modest” financial circumstances will likely strike many trial watchers, perhaps including the Vatican City judges, as curious, given some of the evidence they have heard over the last two-and-a-half years.
Among the charges he faces, the cardinal is accused of diverting Church funds to employ Cecilia Margona, a self-styled private intelligence agent, who has claimed to have been paid by Becciu to engage in clandestine work for the Vatican, as well as to spy for the cardinal on other curial officials.
According to evidence presented during the trial, Becciu instructed his deputy at the secretariat to pay Marogna via her Solvenian holding company without explaining where the money was going or why — and later upbraided him for not deleting departmental records of the transactions.
Financial records also show that the money sent to Marogna by Becciu was spent on designer label goods, luxury travel, and five-star resorts.
Becciu is also on trial for his role in a range of complicated investments, on which the Holy See lost hundreds of millions of euros — including the deal which involved the purchase of a London building.
“My intent was only to create advantages for the Holy See, to do only the good of the Holy See,” the cardinal told Rai, echoing his previous statements in court that he had been presented with “a proposal that was totally advantageous for the Holy See” but that he found recalling the details of the deal “difficult” for him and laid responsibility for the structuring of departmental investments on his staff.
But Vatican judges will have to weigh Becciu’s claims to have only ever acted for the good of the Holy See against testimony that he was actually the architect of a plan to funnel hundreds of millions of euros to a friend of his in the African nation of Angola.
Both Cardinal Becciu’s brother Antonio and the local director of Caritas, Fr. Mario Curzu, are under investigation by Italian authorities in Sardinia as part of their enquiry into the matter. Both have refused to appear during the Vatican trial, despite repeated summons.
Sources close to the prosecution have previously told The Pillar that the priest and Becciu’s brother refused to appear in court because they were concerned they would face the choice either to implicate themselves in criminal activity or make false statements, which could have been used against them by Italian prosecutors.
The pope’s good servant?
Throughout his investigation and trial, Cardinal Becciu has repeatedly said that any suspect activity he may have engaged in was done with explicit papal approval.
Ever since his dismissal from curial service in 2020, Becciu has made a point of asserting his deep, personal loyalty to Pope Francis. But those assertions have also come under close scrutiny during the trial.
The cardinal has since insisted the matter is overblown — despite his recording of the pope appearing to constitute a separate criminal act all its own. In his TV interview last week, he sought to brush the incident aside saying that it was a non-incident until prosecutors got ahold of the tape.
“That phone call was already dead, no one knew about it,” Becciu told Rai. “I’ve never used it, but someone else wanted to publish it.”
Whether the pope and the judges feel the same way will become clearer in the coming weeks. But Becciu went further in his interview, trying to paint himself as a champion of reform and — though it may strike many court watchers as incredible — a victim for his efforts to bring financial transparency to the Vatican.
Asked if he agreed with “the effort the Pope is making to bring more cleanliness and transparency to the use of money in the Vatican,” Becciu responded “I can say that I am proud to have helped the Pope initiate these reforms.”
Speaking to Rai, Becciu went further, claiming that, as part of his reforming record, he “also took the liberty of pointing out to the Pope that certain people did not deserve to be in the Vatican.”
That boast would appear to be a bold reference to the case of the Vatican’s former auditor general, Libero Milone, whom Becciu had detailed by Vatican police and forced to resign from office under threat of criminal prosecution in 2017.
Becciu said at the time Milone had been “spying” on the private financial affairs of senior Church officials, including Becciu, and that the cardinal had convinced the pope to order his ouster.
He told Rai last week that he was “certainly” a victim of people opposed to financial reforms, and that “they almost accused themselves by making accusations against me.”
The logic and wisdom of those statements is likely to come under very close scrutiny by Vatican judges like Giuseppe Pignatone who, in addition to being the chief judge in Becciu’s criminal trial, is separately hearing a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal brought against Becciu’s former department by Milone.
Lawyers close to the Milone lawsuit have told The Pillar that all sides of the case increasingly see Becciu’s criminal conviction for abuse of office as presenting a “gentlemanly way of resolving” of the suit for all sides.
‘I have faith’
In that event that Becciu is convicted, the cardinal would face a potential prison sentence of up to seven years — something he told Rai he refuses to consider as a possible outcome.
Asked if he would appeal to the pope for clemency in the event he faced a lengthy jail term, he told Italian TV that “I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about the possibility of conviction.”
“I have faith,” Becciu said. “The same Holy Father, who meets the all same various people I have, has always told me to have faith, to have faith.”
While the cardinal will have to wait a least a few more weeks to discover his fate, many around the case will likely remember the long list of times he’s invoked his faith in Pope Francis to come to his aid during the trial.
In this life, at least, that faith has not yet saved him.