Rules Are for Schmucks: The Inquisition Follies

So much news this summer has been depressing. But if you’re a news junkie looking for a belly-laugh not associated with Donald Trump, all you need do is turn east, to Vatican City.

Back in the good old days of the fifteenth century, the Vatican ran an operation called the Inquisition. It worked pretty well in rooting out Jews, heretics, atheists, and other ne’er-do-wells. The use of torture in this sacred endeavor was not renounced by the Vatican until well into the nineteenth century.

Perhaps out of a sense of nostalgia, the church has launched a new Inquisition, this time aimed at people a lot worse than heretics: the blackguards who expose how much money is being pilfered by senior Vatican officials. In a trial just concluded, a monsignor who passed along information of this nature to reporters has been sentenced to eighteen months in a Vatican dungeon. The “crime” he committed—embarrassing the Vatican—was not a crime until the current pope, media darling Pope Francis, made it so.

One of his co-defendants was also convicted, apparently of the crime of being an uppity female. The court cleared her of actually passing along any embarrassing information, but slapped on a ten-month suspended sentence for being the “inspiration” for others to reveal the truth. The nerve! The fact that her sentence is “suspended” may not prove of much benefit to her, because a Vatican spokesman has already announced that she may be subject to additional “legal action” for having the effrontery to try to defend herself at trial with “calumnious affirmations” about Vatican big shots. If she’s convicted again, at least the way most courts work, her “suspended” sentence may become unsuspended.

There is much debate in the US over whether secret-revealers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning put others’ lives at risk. I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that there is no such allegation about the two new convicts. What one of them revealed, and the other “inspired” to be revealed, was published in two 2015 books called Avarice and Merchants in the Temple. These books detail, for example, the absurdly high expense involved in paying Vatican bureaucrats to figure out whether some dead person is actually a “saint” or not. They also describe the transfer of some €400,000 euros (about $444,000) from a Vatican hospital to pay for renovations to the attic of former Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Bertone said he was unaware of the payment. He then solved the problem, by returning €150,000 euros (about $166,000) to the hospital.

Tell you what: if someone ever pays $444,000 to fix up my attic, I will notice. If you doubt that, go ahead and try me. I dare you. That is, if I’m not too obsessed with pondering the conundrum of how somebody can correct a $444,000 goof by refunding only $166,000. I’ve never been that great at math.

Cardinal Bertone may not be great at math, either. The pope confirmed a while ago that Bertone was being investigated for “misappropriating” some fifteen million euros in funds held by the Vatican Bank. “It’s something being studied, it’s not clear,” the pope said. “Maybe it’s the truth, but at this moment it’s not definitive.” But “this moment” was over two years ago, in May 2014. By contrast, within a matter of days after the books were published, the monsignor whistleblower found himself locked up in jail.

If Bertone is guilty, don’t all the Catholic parishioners who ponied up the “misappropriated” funds deserve some kind of justice? If he’s innocent, doesn’t he deserve to have his name cleared of a terribly serious charge? Instead, the Vatican focuses on the real problem, which is not the possible corruption itself, but the evil journalists and their nefarious femme fatale co-conspirators who tell the world about it.

The people who are good at financial math are called “auditors.” Last December, just after Merchants in the Temple was published, the Vatican announced with great fanfare its first-ever external audit, to be performed by international accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Finally, after decades of allegations of criminal conduct, a highly skilled set of professionals would present a report to the public on what exactly was going on in the murky world of Vatican finance.

So how’s that audit going? It’s not. In April, the contract for the audit was suddenly canceled. PwC will be kept on as a “consultant,” so they’ll still get paid, and thus (most likely) remain docile. But the public will never get an independent report. Instead, we get the solemn assurance that it’s now “impossible to launder money” at the Vatican Bank. How do we know this? Because the head of the bank says so himself, that’s how.

We also know that two Vatican Bank board members suddenly resigned, over unspecified “disagreements,” shortly after the audit was called off. And that just this week, Pope Francis stripped even more power from the guy he originally appointed as the “finance czar” to clean up the mess. Perhaps it was a bad idea for that fellow to have admitted that he was “surprised” at the cancellation of the audit contract.

The leaks trial itself was a kangaroo court fiasco. The woman who was convicted, Francesca Chaouqui, gave birth while the trial was at its peak. She brought her infant son to its final sessions, and insisted that if she were sent to a Vatican jail, little Pietro would be coming with her. Her own lawyer described her to the court as “unlikeable, unpleasant, insufferable, arrogant and presumptuous.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever on trial for something, I’d prefer to have a lawyer who is a little more upbeat about my character.

It’s no great secret that at any given moment, half the bureaucrats in the Vatican curia are busily trying to backstab the other half, and vice versa. As part of her defense, Chaouqui was anxious to present testimony from Bertone’s successor as secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, along with another cardinal and the archbishop who serves as “papal almoner”—the guy who sells “apostolic blessings,” on real parchment, fees for which can now be conveniently paid online. The response of her judges was swift: request denied. Why? Because the testimony would have been irrelevant? Nope. According to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, it was denied because Vatican City’s penal code exempts “public officials” from having to testify. There are a heck of a lot of American public officials who wish we had that same rule over here.

Lombardi further insists that the trial was necessary to combat “negative consequences in the public opinion, which has a right to objective and serene information.” Serene information? I’m not sure what that is. I suspect, though, that “unserene” information must be a lot juicier.

Actually, I should say “former” Vatican spokesman. On Monday, the Vatican announced that Lombardi is being replaced by an American, Greg Burke, who now serves as Lombardi’s deputy. Burke’s employer before coming to the Vatican? Why, none other than Fox News, which has its own special take on what constitutes “serene information.” He should fit right in.