“So, Mon. What’s the deal with that two billion dollars?”
I can’t tell you how many conversations I had over the Christmas break that began along those lines.
On most occasions, I usually have some insight to share with people who ask me about church matters but, when it came to this particular matter, I was completely dumbfounded.
Fortunately, I was in good company because the bishops of Australia were also taken by surprise.
What an embarrassing and scandalous mess.
“[A]pproximately 700,000 Euro was transferred from the Vatican to Melbourne, during the time that Cardinal Pell was being investigated, charged and tried for child sexual abuse.”
Let’s just do a quick recap of the sorry saga. Back in September 2020, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu – a rumoured adversary of Cardinal George Pell – was forced by Pope Francis to resign after allegations were made against him relating to financial misappropriation. Cardinal Becciu has denied any wrongdoing.
Just over a week later, an Italian media outlet reported that approximately 700,000 Euro was transferred from the Vatican to Melbourne, during the time that Cardinal Pell was being investigated, charged and tried for child sexual abuse.
Subsequent reports said the figure was around double that amount and came to Australia in four transactions that occurred between February 2017 and June 2018.
On the back of this, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells asked questions of AUSTRAC, the Australian Government agency responsible for detecting the use of our financial systems for criminal purposes. AUSTRAC is a “financial intelligence” agency, collecting and analysing financial information to aid law enforcement officials and national security bodies.
AUSTRAC’s Chief Executive Officer, Nicole Rose, confirmed shortly thereafter that AUSTRAC had looked into the matter and provided information to the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police. Note the connection to Victoria: AUSTRAC didn’t say information had been provided to any other state police force, just to Victoria, so it is open to presume the money landed there.
Less than three days after this confirmation from AUSTRAC, Victoria Police said they were not investigating. A spokeswoman for VicPol said that they had not been advised of any suspicious activity and so, in the absence of other evidence or intelligence, they would not conduct any further investigation.
Let’s just pause there for a moment.
Isn’t it the job of the police to collect the “other evidence” after receiving the details? According to the Victoria Police website, its services include “detecting and investigating offences,” and so you would think this was part of their brief.
“AUSTRAC confirmed that since 2014, $2.3 billion had been transferred by the Vatican or individuals within the Vatican to Australia, via some 47,000 separate transfers.”
Perhaps if they could summon the same zeal with which they “investigated” Cardinal Pell – including, if you recall, advertising for complaints regarding St Patrick’s Cathedral during the Cardinal’s time as Archbishop of Melbourne before any allegation had been made – then they might be able to find some of the information “other evidence or intelligence” they need.
Then, just before Christmas, AUSTRAC came back with some additional information. As you read in last week’s Catholic Weekly, AUSTRAC confirmed that since 2014, $2.3 billion had been transferred by the Vatican or individuals within the Vatican to Australia, via some 47,000 separate transfers.
This is about 1,000 times what had been reported in Italian media and had prompted the inquiries from Senator Fierravanti-Wells.
On average, it is around 20 separate transactions of less than $50,000 each, every day for seven years. In other words, it is the type of process you would go through if you were looking to fly under the radar.
The Australian Bishops quickly said that they had no knowledge of the transfers and were not aware of any funds being received by Catholic dioceses, religious orders or institutions within Australia.
Unnamed sources in the Vatican were similarly quick to distance themselves, pointing out that the figures alleged exceed the total annual revenue for the Holy See, and so the figures provided appeared untrue and even nonsensical.
So, where does that leave us?
In terms of the investigation, we are told that officials in both countries are speaking to each other, trying to figure out the details.
If the Vatican records do not match those of AUSTRAC, without further information being provided by AUSTRAC – specifically, the identity of both transferor and transferee – there is not much more that can be done by Church authorities.
AUSTRAC may release further details, but it may not, and argue instead that providing any more information could prejudice an “active” investigation.
“And for Bishops … this is another occasion where they will be subjected to cynicism and suspicion, through no fault of their own, but rather because of the misdeeds of others.”
If that were to be the case, it would be an awful scandal. For the general public, it would just add another layer to the narrative that says the Church is flush with cash and assets.
For ordinary Catholics left without answers, and who have seen in the likes of Theodore McCarrick just how far financial prowess can take you, we will be wondering indefinitely about who and what can be or may have been bought or at least influenced by the dollar, whether that is inside or outside the Church.
And for Bishops who are already dealing with a lack of trust in the episcopate due to the action or inaction of some of their predecessors, this is another occasion where they will be subjected to cynicism and suspicion, through no fault of their own, but rather because of the misdeeds of others.
As I said, it is an embarrassing and scandalous mess. For the sake of the Church, I hope that AUSTRAC and anyone else with information brings it to the light.
Even if the revelations are painful, we all benefit from the truth.