Ever since his election as spiritual head of the Roman Catholic church in 2013, Pope Francis has always said he wants a church for the poor.
But two controversial new books describe a Vatican awash with cash that is woefully mismanaged, where senior officials pour church funds into their already-lavish apartments, and where even the office that researches candidates for sainthood has had its bank accounts frozen out of concerns about financial impropriety.
According to Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Merchants in the Temple, due to be published on Thursday, one high-ranking Vatican official, Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, was so keen on improving his apartment that he took it upon himself to knock down a wall separating his flat from his elderly neighbour’s. When the elderly priest returned from hospital, where he had been very ill, he found his things had been packed in boxes.
“As soon as he opened the door he realised something was wrong: his apartment had been modified, and was missing one room, but he was too old to fight back and seek justice,” Nuzzi wrote. The priest died a short time later. Sciacca was demoted a few months into Pope Francis’s tenure, with a new position at a tribunal that handles legal and administrative cases.
Nuzzi’s book is not the only publication to be raising eyebrows in Rome this week. Avarice, a work by journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi also to be released on Thursday, delves into allegations of financial shenanigans, including an allegation that the Vatican’s former secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, used €200,000 (£142,000) from a foundation meant to support the Bambino Gesù paediatric hospital in Rome to renovate his own apartment. Under an agreement alleged in the book, the “mega-penthouse” could, in exchange, be used for hospital functions.
According to La Repubblica, which published excerpts of the book, Bertone told Fittipaldi that he had paid his share of the renovation costs.
The embarrassing allegations were unveiled a day after the Vatican announced it had arrested two members of a former Vatican committee on suspicion of leaking documents that apparently formed the basis of the books’ key allegations.
Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations expert, and Monsignor Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, a Spanish member of the church bureaucracy, or curia, were questioned and arrested for allegedly stealing church documents. On her Facebook page, Chaouqui, whose profile picture captures a smiling Pope Francis shaking her hand, denied having betrayed the Argentinian pope.
Under the hashtag #MoreThanAnythingInThisWorld, she wrote: “I have not betrayed the Pope. Nor have I have given a piece of paper to anyone … It will emerge soon that I have the full certainty and total trust in the investigators … No pity please, I have my head held high, and [have] nothing to be ashamed of.”
Balda could not be reached by the Guardian.
In Rome on Tuesday the sensational story of the arrests was superseded by the new allegations of Vatican impropriety.
Pope Francis signalled when he was elected that cleaning up church finances was a top priority and the Vatican bank – just one arm of the Vatican’s financial empire – has since claimed that it has come a long way since the days when it was considered a pariah in the global banking system, a place where mobsters and corrupt politicians alike could allegedly launder their funds with impunity.
But the two books, citing confidential documents, describe intense resistance to Pope Francis’s reform efforts, even as international auditors warned the pope that there was a “complete lack of transparency in the bookkeeping of both the Holy See the Governorate”, and that costs were out of control, according to Nuzzi’s book.
The allegations are not entirely new. The most senior cardinal charged with overhauling the Vatican finances, the Australian George Pell, described earlier this year that the Vatican had $1.5bn (£1bn) in assets that had not been previously accounted for, telling The Crux associate editor John Allen that the accounts were “muddled”.
Nuzzi’s tell-all, which the Guardian has seen in advance of its release, describes how one of the tasks of the committee for which Baldi and Chaouqui worked was to get to grips with the Vatican’s $2.7bn real estate holdings, which the commission found were worth seven times more than previously reported.
It also examined the office within the Vatican that researches candidates for sainthood. What it allegedly found was astounding: even though the office is closely examining the records of hundreds of people for possible sainthood – an effort that costs about €500,000 per possible saint – the office told the commission that it had no documentation it could provide to back up its expenses, which run into the “tens of millions of euros”.
The Vatican bank did not include the closure of the account in detail in its annual report.
The Vatican declined to comment on the allegations contained in the books. “For now, we are not saying anything,” said Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
On Monday, when it announced the arrests, the Holy See said in a statement: “Publications of this nature do not help in any way to establish clarity and truth, but rather generate confusion and partial and tendentious conclusions.”