A nasty war of words erupted Friday in Rome in the wake of an explosive piece in the newsmagazine L’Espresso, charging that a cleric hand-picked by Pope Francis to reform the Vatican bank was involved in fairly brazen gay affairs while serving as a papal diplomat more than a decade ago.
So far, the pope appears to be standing by his man, with a senior Vatican official saying Friday morning on background that Francis “has listened to everyone and has confidence” in Msgr. Battista Ricca, the cleric named in the piece.
On the record, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi on Friday branded the story “not credible.”
The Ricca story broke the same day Francis announced a new pontifical commission dealing with the Vatican’s economic and administrative structures.
The aim, according to a legal document with which Francis created the body, is to draft reforms promoting “simplification and rationalization” and “more careful planning of economic activities,” as well as to “favor transparency” and “ever greater prudence in the area of finances.”
The eight-member commission is composed almost entirely of laypeople, led by Joseph F.X. Zahra of Malta, an economist and businessman who has also served as a board member of the Vatican-based Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation and on the International Audit Committee of the Holy See and the Vatican State.
While waiting for the dust to settle on how accurate the specific claims against Ricca may be, two preliminary observations suggest themselves.
First, it confirms how much the Institute for the Works of Religion, popularly known as the Vatican bank, has become a primary acid test and battleground for the larger question of Vatican reform.
In the last 14 months:
- One bank president has been fired for alleged incompetence and erratic behavior while insisting he was trying to promote transparency;
- His successor, tapped by Benedict XVI as one of his last acts, faced a mini-tempest at the beginning because of his ties to a German firm that manufacturers warships;
- The bank’s top two managers resigned while facing an Italian probe into alleged money-laundering; and
- A new commission was created to investigate the bank at roughly the same time a former Vatican accountant was charged, among other things, with illicit use of his bank accounts.
- Now, the bank prelate finds himself in the eye of the storm.
It’s almost enough to make one think the Vatican bank ought to come with a skull-and-crossbones label, like a pack of cigarettes.
“Warning: Working at this place may be dangerous to your health.”
Second, the Ricca affair also illustrates how Francis himself is still viewed positively by almost everyone because the one thing everyone appears to agree on is that Francis is not to blame.
Friday’s story by veteran journalist Sandro Magister claims that Ricca, now 57, had a live-in lover when he served as a papal diplomat in Uruguay in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that he cruised gay bars and once got beaten up, and that another time he brought a young man back to the papal embassy and ended up trapped in an elevator with him overnight before being freed by the local fire department.
It should be noted there’s no suggestion in the story that Ricca was guilty of criminal conduct or sexual abuse and no suggestion he ever faced civil charges.
Battista later returned to Rome and ended up as the director of the Casa Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where Francis now lives, earning the pope’s trust and being tapped to become his “prelate,” or delegate, at the bank.
(Technically, the prelate is appointed by a body of cardinals that supervises the bank, but it’s widely believed they acted on Francis’ wishes.)
Magister insisted Francis did not know this chapter of Battista’s past before naming him on June 15, suggesting Ricca’s Vatican file had been sanitized by elements of a purported “gay lobby.”
After the Vatican called the story “not credible,” L’Espresso fired back with a strongly worded response confirming the report “point by point,” insisting it was based on “primary sources,” and calling the Vatican’s denial “improbable and improvident.”
In sotto voce fashion, two competing narratives quickly emerged in and around the Vatican to account for the situation.
For Magister and those who accept his analysis, a decadelong effort to conceal Battista’s past is proof positive there’s a shadowy network of people with secrets to keep in the Vatican, including some in senior positions, who protect and shelter their own and who thereby allow corruption to fester.
That’s what’s usually meant by the term “gay lobby,” though most Italians don’t understand it to refer just to secrets about sex, but also other skeletons in the closet such as financial improprieties or political maneuverings.
For this group, the occult influence of the “gay lobby” is proof of the need for precisely the house-cleaning Francis has started to launch, and most express confidence he’ll do the right thing.
Defenders of Ricca insist there’s another side to Ricca’s story not given in Magister’s piece but known to Francis.
They say Ricca is a genuine reformer and dredging up a seamy chapter of his past from more than a decade ago may be a smear campaign by elements of a Vatican old guard that doesn’t want its power and privilege to slip away.
Even if he is gay and perhaps struggled at one point with celibacy, they say, what does that have to do with his ability to implement reform in a bank?
These voices, too, generally say the situation confirms how much Francis is needed and insist he’ll make the right call.
All of which may illustrate that because of his personal popularity and because his papacy is still young and capable of seeming all things to all people, Francis remains largely untouchable and above reproach.
What the Ricca story also shows, however, is that the same thing can’t be said for those around him.