Pope Francis met Monday with Cardinal George Pell and thanked him for his witness, warmly welcoming him for a private audience in the Apostolic Palace after the cardinal’s sex abuse conviction and acquittal in Australia.
The Vatican released photos and a brief video clip of the meeting, a clear sign that both the pope and Pell wanted the reception to be widely seen. In it, Francis is heard saying “Good to see you” and “more than a year” — an apparent reference to the 13 months that the 79-year-old Pell spent in prison.
The Vatican's in-house media site, Vatican News, said the pope also thanked Pell for his witness, and recalled that after Pell was absolved in April, Francis delivered a homily in which he prayed for “all those who have suffered from unjust sentences.”
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The audience was a moment of redemption for Pell, who left the Vatican in disgrace in 2017 to face trial only to return to find the Holy See enmeshed in a scandal of corruption, financial mismanagement and waste, the likes of which he had tried to uncover as Francis’ economy czar.
Over the past year, the Vatican has been hit by damaging revelations that it poured some 350 million euros, much of it donations from the faithful, into a London real estate venture. Vatican prosecutors are investigating a handful of Italian middlemen who are accused of having fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees while the Vatican’s incompetent money managers stood by.
The scandal has implicated a half-dozen Holy See employees, including one of Pell’s Vatican nemeses, Cardinal Angelo Becciu.
Becciu, the longtime No. 2 in the Vatican secretariat of state, was involved in the initial real estate investment but was fired last month after Francis said he had evidence that the Italian embezzled 100,000 euros from the secretariat of state to fund a charity controlled by his brother.
Becciu has admitted he sent the money but denied wrongdoing. He has also denied any wrongdoing in the London venture and defended it as a sound investment. He has not been named as a suspect in the case.
After Becciu was sacked, Pell issued a statement praising Francis and saying he hoped “the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria," a reference to his belief that his prosecution in Victoria state was in some way connected to his efforts to root out corruption and waste in the Vatican.
Vatican prosecutors haven’t indicted anyone yet in the London venture investigation, and their case seems rife with holes and potential conflicts, given Vatican superiors approved the contracts with the middlemen that provided them with such huge management fees.
News reports this weekend suggested that Francis himself was aware of the problems of the London venture in late 2018 and that one of his friends was involved in introducing the middlemen most implicated in the deal into the Vatican.
The reports suggest that Francis once again trusted the wrong people in micromanaging the Vatican — a problem that has surfaced in the past when Francis’ friends ended up betraying, misleading or otherwise making problems for him.
In addition, just this week, one of the Vatican’s two prosecutors in the case appeared on Italian television wearing his other hat as a defense lawyer for a Rome businessman convicted in a sweeping Rome corruption trial dubbed “Mafia Capitale.”
His appearance on La 7 television was a reminder of the peculiar, and potentially problematic issue that Vatican prosecutors and magistrates also work in a foreign legal system, and have even gone up against each other in Italian courts.