Watch CBS News

Pope Francis backs his embattled finance czar

Pope Francis on Tuesday stood behind his embattled finance czar Cardinal George Pell, signing a series of statutes consolidating Pell's authority and giving him sweeping powers to oversee Vatican finances. The controversial cardinal, the former archbishop of Sydney, had recently become the subject of a smear campaign to discredit him.

Last year, Pope Francis tasked Pell with cleaning up Vatican finances, long plagued by scandal and corruption. He appointed him head of a powerful new ministry known as the Secretariat of the Economy, where Pell - known for his no-nonsense management style and unblinking tenacity - reportedly ruffled a lot of feathers, particularly in the Italian-dominated curia.

Pell implemented new measures for transparency and accountability applicable to all Vatican departments, including those that had never had any financial oversight whatsoever. He further irritated critics when he announced in February that he had discovered $1.5 billion in assets that the Vatican did not know it had, due to muddled accounting practices. Also in February, he issued a new procedure requiring Vatican department heads to sign a legally binding document stating that their financial statements were accurate and complete.

Pell met with increasing resistance. Critics said Pell went beyond his mandate to clean up finances, and wanted to centralize power in a "superministry." One influential Italian cardinal suggested creating a panel of cardinals to oversee Pell, and exempting some of the biggest Vatican departments from his financial control altogether.

Last week, his critics went even further, and the pugnacious Pell became the target of an old-style Vatican smear campaign. Italian weekly L'Espresso published leaked documents and receipts painting Pell as a profligate spender, despite his mandate to impose financial discipline. The magazine alleged Pell spent money on business flights, furniture, and tailored clerical robes, and said the pope confronted Pell about his spending.

The Holy See press office quickly issued a statement saying the attack against Pell was "unjustified and petty," and condemned the leaks as illegal. The next day, the Secretariat of the Economy -- Pell's office -- dismissed the allegations as "completely false," the alleged conversation between Pell and the Pope as "a complete fiction," and said that the operational costs of setting up the secretariat were actually under budget.

The episode is reminiscent of the 2013 "Vatileaks" scandal, when Pope Benedict's butler, Paolo Gabriele, leaked the former pope's confidential papers to the press. Gabriele was tried and convicted, but many believe that shadowy senior Vatican clerics were behind the leaks.

Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, a director of the Pontifical North American College and CBS News consultant, said he discussed the L'Espresso article with Cardinal Pell.

"The smear campaign was to be expected," Figueiredo said. "When we touch people's lives, their zone of comfort, there will be a reaction. At the cost of his own personal career and reputation, Cardinal Pell wishes to implement the task given to him by the Holy Father, which is to root out corruption once and for all. For that there will always be a price."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.