“Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from his Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.” — Dorothy Day
In the first six months of Pope Francis’s pontificate, a few things have become clear. First, the former Cardinal Bergoglio is a tireless advocate for the poor and marginalized, having shown solidarity through the witness of his simple lifestyle. He has, for example, decided to eschew the baroque excess of the traditional papal apartments in favor of the more modest accommodations of nearby Domus Santa Marta.
Second, Francis, taking his cues from Benedict XVI and members of the College of Cardinals, is intent on reforming the Roman curia. His modus operandi thus far indicates that he wants a reform of the Church’s finances, bureaucracy, and old-boy network, including the long entrenched Lavender Mafia. “In the curia there is talk of a gay lobby. And it is true. It’s there. Let’s see what we can do,” the Pope said to a group of Latin American religious he received in audience on June 6.
Perhaps most distinguishing of all, Pope Francis has made it clear that he isn’t shy about doing whatever he feels is the right thing for the Church and for the world — despite his Vatican handlers. In an interview earlier this summer, the Holy Father told Argentine journalist Jorge Milia that “here [in the Vatican] there are many ‘masters’ [padroni] of the Pope, and with a lot of seniority in years of service.” He explained to Milia that every change he’s introduced so far has taken him great effort because of the parallel powers that exist in the Vatican. His goal is to avoid becoming a prisoner of his secretaries. He wants to be in control of his own schedule and, most importantly, he doesn’t want to be kept in the dark. This is another reason Pope Francis decided to reside at Domus Santa Marta.
Ironically, Domus Santa Marta is where Cardinal Bergoglio got to know and appreciate Msgr. Battista Ricca, the priest Francis appointed on June 15 to serve as his personal representative to the scandal-ridden Institute for Works of Religion (IOR) — the Vatican “bank.” For the past year, Ricca has served as director of the Domus Santa Marta, where he was brought into regular contact with Bergoglio, before and after the conclave. The appointment was intended to place a trusted person inside the IOR for the express purpose of cleaning house.
Francis, however, did not find out until after he made the appointment that the priest he personally selected was a bona fide member of the so-called gay lobby he denounced just a week earlier. In the wake of Ricca’s appointment, the Pope received incontestable information about Ricca’s “scandalous homosexual conduct” when he served as a Vatican diplomat to the Uruguayan nunciature from 2000-2001. In Uruguay at least five bishops who were direct witnesses to the scandal are ready to report. Es todo verdad — it’s all true — ecclesiastical sources told El País, the leading daily newspaper of Montevideo, the nation's capital.
In other words, the parallel powers in the Vatican not only failed to inform Francis of Msgr. Ricca’s compromising past, but they appear to have actively covered up the priest’s black record. It is highly doubtful that the Pope would have appointed Ricca to such an important post had this crucial information not been kept from him. This was Francis’s first major appointment in the move to reform the curia — and it’s turned out to be a disaster.
The facts came out in the press over the course of a couple of weeks in July due to a series of damning reports by respected veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, writing for the Italian magazine L’Espresso. Magister, assisted by verifiable documentation, explained the black hole in Ricca’s history: When Ricca was assigned to the Uruguayan nunciature, he arrived — and this was against all protocol — with a companion named Patrick Haari, a captain of the Swiss guard. Ricca assigned Haari a residence in the nunciature, and gave him a position and a salary. The homosexual intimacy between the two men, according to Magister, “was so open as to scandalize numerous bishops, priests, and laity…not last the sisters who attended the nunciature” (July 19). His time in Uruguay was also riddled with other blatant sexual scandals, including getting attacked and beaten in Bulevar Artigas while “cruising” in a well-known homosexual hook-up spot and, in a separate incident, getting trapped in an elevator overnight with a young man. The fire brigade had to come to the rescue; otherwise this incident would not have come to light in public.
By all accounts, Januasz Bolonek, the new nuncio in Uruguay, was no fan of Ricca and Haari. Bolonek informed Vatican authorities and sent Ricca packing. After a short stint in Trinidad and Tobago, where he also butted heads with the local nuncio, Ricca was sent back to Rome. Haari was sent home directly from Uruguay, but apparently without all of his belongings. The baggage Haari left behind was opened by Uruguayan authorities, who found a pistol and “an enormous quantity of condoms and pornographic material.”
Again, none of this appeared in Ricca’s Vatican file. Nuncio Bolonek had filed a number of reports with Vatican officials; nonetheless, Bolonek’s reports, along with other damning information, were concealed from Pope Francis. Ricca’s personnel dossier was kept immaculate in order to facilitate a new career for Ricca — a prestigious Vatican career.
Perhaps because Pope Francis’s reform agenda was so well known, ecclesiastical sources came forward to inform him of Ricca’s scandalous background. “Because of the many upright persons who knew about his scandalous past,” wrote Magister, “the news of the promotion was a cause of extreme bitterness, all the more keen because it was seen as a presage of harm for the arduous enterprise that Pope Francis has in the works, of purification of the Church and of reform of the Roman curia.”
What complicates this whole affair, unfortunately, is the Vatican’s response to the revelations and specifically to Magister’s reportage. If the Pope had taken the information and retracted Ricca’s appointment — or at least put it on ice — the whole controversy would have likely died quickly and Pope Francis hailed as a kind of pontifical hero, giving some serious teeth to his ostensible plan to root out corruption and the so-called gay lobby inside the Vatican.
The Vatican Press Office, however, allegedly representing Pope Francis, responded instead with denial and counter-accusation, even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary. Magister was painted as a reckless muckraker in the affair. Fr. Federico Lombardi — yes, he is still the official Vatican spokesman, despite his demonstrated inability to deal with the media — denounced Magister’s report as “not trustworthy.” That assertion held little traction. L’Espresso and Magister responded to Fr. Lombardi a few days later, reaffirming point-by-point all the details of the Ricca affair as reported, even providing evidence of additional verifiable documentation.
Then, on July 19, Fr. Lombardi announced in confident language, “The Pope has had the chance to verify whether the accusations against Msgr. Ricca were consistent or not…. Pope Francis is aware of the accusations made against Msgr. Ricca but has decided to keep him in his position.” Consistent? What does that mean or imply, one wonders? More importantly, this official Vatican pronouncement essentially says that, despite Ricca’s well-documented scandalous past, the Pope has decided that this morally reprehensible character is still the best candidate to represent him in his efforts to clean house at the IOR! To put it mildly, this is problematic. From every possible perspective, the Pope looks bad. Ricca has made him look bad. The parallel powers at the Vatican who concealed Ricca’s past have made him look bad. And it’s just possible that, if Fr. Lombardi can be believed to truly represent the intentions of Pope Francis, the Holy Father has made himself look bad.
As if that’s not bad enough, other journalists and media characters are joining Fr. Lombardi in pointing fingers at Magister as the source of the problem, rather than at Ricca and his Vatican enablers. Even conservative Vatican journalist Robert Moynihan, publisher of the excellent Inside the Vatican magazine, appeared to criticize Magister and support the bizarre idea that somehow Ricca’s appointment is justified. Moynihan, who writes periodic dispatches from Rome, focused his July 20 column on this controversy. “We are now at a critical juncture in the new pontificate,” he wrote. Acknowledging that Francis is walking among wolves in the Vatican, Moynihan nonetheless asserted that the Pope’s decision to appoint Ricca as the “eyes and ears” of the Vatican bank somehow made sense. He argued that Ricca’s scandalous behavior occurred more than a dozen years ago — as if there’s some sort of statute of limitations to moral character and public scandal. (People can confess and repent, don’t you know.) He even questioned the motives of those who actually told the Pope the truth about Ricca’s sordid past.
Motives aside, the matter of public scandal is important, especially given the momentous scandals the Church has faced over the past decade. Even if the scandalous behavior is only in the past — a dozen years ago — doesn’t this dark background give some indication of Ricca’s moral character and call into question the integrity of the man who was chosen to be the “eyes and ears” of the Pope at the Vatican bank? With such obvious skullduggery afoot, it stands to reason that Pope Francis would not want to enlist the help of someone whose moral integrity is in question to assist in his grand plan to reform the Roman curia, eliminate corruption, and uproot the entrenched gay lobby.
Moynihan seems to want to dismiss all that, believing instead that this could be part of some massive anti-Ricca disinformation campaign by those who do not want to see the IOR reformed. “Look behind the facts,” he urged. “I have been a Vaticanist for a quarter century. In those years, I have seen many cases when what seems to be true at first glance is not the truth, or not the whole truth.”
Look behind the facts? The days of trusting what’s going on deep behind the scenes in chanceries and in the Roman curia are over. Transparency is what’s needed, not blind trust in some broken bureaucracy. To suggest that Francis has some “behind the scenes” reason to appoint a person of ill-repute to represent him as his personal reformer is downright silly. The real question is this: Given the scandalous implications of the Ricca revelations, is it prudent to leave such an appointment in place? It’s already been a supreme embarrassment to the Pope. It already furthers the negative public image of a Vatican bureaucracy run by a cadre of corrupt codgers. As Magister writes in his July 26 rebuttal to Fr. Lombardi, “The affair of Monsignor Ricca is a case in point of the weeds that Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio wants to uproot from the Vatican curia.”
The foregoing article, "Dances With Wolves, Vatican Edition" was originally published in the New Oxford Review (September 2013), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.