ROME – In a cryptic late-night announcement, the Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of one of the Church’s most powerful officials, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a fixture in ecclesiastical intrigue and internal power games who also defended his rights as a cardinal.
The Vatican has not set out in its in-place statement the reason for the cardinal’s resignation as head of the department responsible for making saints, but it does so amid his reported connection to a financial scandal involving a London real estate deal that was bleeding church money but enriched middlemen.
Cardinal Becciu has denied any wrongdoing in this matter.
The wording of the announcement suggested that Cardinal Becciu lost his vote in the next conclave when the voting cardinals will select the next Pope from among their ranks. Cardinals usually lose their voting rights in the conclave when they turn 80; Cardinal Becciu is 72 years old.
However, the statement referred to him as “His Eminence, Cardinal”, suggesting that he had retained his title.
The Italian Vatican press reported that Francis shocked Cardinal Becciu on Thursday by calling for his resignation. A call to Cardinal Becciu was not answered on Thursday evening, but by the Italian news agency adnKronos said it had reached him. “I prefer silence,” it quoted him as saying.
On Thursday evening observers and practitioners of the Vatican power politics asked: What exactly did Cardinal Becciu do wrong?
Cardinal Becciu is not your everyday meaning.
As a former sostituto or chief of staff in the State Secretariat of the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI. And Pope Francis oversaw the ambassadors of the Vatican and played an important role in running the Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the Vatican, and had full access to the Pope.
He became a major infighter and a star in conspiracies over alleged attempts to undercut financial reform when he subjected PricewaterhouseCoopers to auditing of all Vatican departments.
This review had been approved by Cardinal George Pell of Australia, whom Francis had called in as the Vatican’s chief economic officer. He had tried to use less of the Peter Pence Fund for the poor to cover budget deficits.
But Cardinal Pell ruffled Roman feathers with his brusque demeanor and bold steps and signed the examination contract as “Manager of the Holy See”. Ultimately, he was restricted by his involvement in a sexual abuse case and returned to Australia for trial in 2017.
His followers constantly, if quietly, attribute his removal to a conspiratorial masterpiece by Cardinal Becciu, who was seen as the stubborn face of the Vatican’s old guard. (Cardinal Pell appealed this case in May.)
Cardinal Becciu appeared to be a prelate on the rise in the Francis pontificate who often traveled with the Pope. On June 28, 2018, when he received his red cardinal’s hat, the bishops stood to congratulate him.
But then, in October 2019, the Vatican prosecutors ordered a Raid the offices the Vatican Banking Authority on an investigation into the purchase of a London property, part of which was bought with money donated by believers to the Peter’s Pence Fund.
Francis himself had ordered the investigation, despite saying on a papal flight to Tokyo in November 2019 that it was more responsible to invest the donations than to put them in a drawer.
“You can also buy a property, rent it and then sell it, but with all security measures for the good of the people and by peters pence,” said the Pope.
The investigation resulted in the resignation of the Vatican chief of security, the dismissal of several Vatican tax officials and the arrest in June 2020 of an Italian banker who acted as an intermediary for the Holy See in the real estate transaction.
“We too have relied on people who have not earned our trust,” Father Juan Antonio Guerrero, who succeeded Cardinal Pell as Prefect of the Secretariat for Economic Affairs, told the Vatican News at the time.
Thursday’s statement suggests that Francis may no longer rely on Cardinal Becciu, who was in charge of administrative duties when the deal closed.
Francis last punished a cardinal for accepting the waiver of the rights and privileges of Theodore E. McCarrick, the once powerful Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. Francis then removed Mr. McCarrick from the priesthood after the Church found him guilty of sexually abusing seminarians and minors.
Another cardinal, Keith O’Brien of Scotland, also gave up his rights and privileges as a cardinal after anonymous priests accused him of sexual misconduct. But unlike Mr. McCarrick, he retained his title and remained a cardinal until his death in 2018.
The Vatican’s failure to explain why clergymen like Cardinal Becciu are losing their jobs is a frequent point of contention among advocates of sexual abuse survivors. However, it was clearly a terrible blow to a prelate who once operated in the highest heights of the Vatican.
“I have served the Pope wholeheartedly, be it Benedict or Francis,” he told The Tablet, a Catholic publication, shortly before his appointment as cardinal in 2018. “And that is exactly what we should do as Christians.”
He added that Francis was a man of “unstoppable activity and energy” but noted that reform “must be gradual, always gradual in the Roman Curia.”