The Australian cardinal who was Pope Francis’s economy minister before having to defend himself from sex abuse allegations said he was shocked by the level of “criminality” he stumbled across in the Vatican.
During a long and tortuous legal process, George Pell was convicted but ultimately acquitted of accusations that he molested two 13-year-old choirboys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Although he was definitively acquitted of the allegations by Australia’s High Court in April, victims’ groups and critics say that at the very least he mishandled previous sex abuse cases when he was archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, protecting priests and downplaying the extent of the problem in the Catholic Church.
Having spent more than 400 days in prison in Melbourne, he returned to Rome last month.
Cardinal Pell recalled his experiences as the Vatican’s treasurer between his appointment in 2014 and his departure three years later, when he had to return to Australia to face the sex abuse allegations.
He said he knew when he accepted the job that the Vatican’s finances were “a bit of a mess” but had no idea of the scale of the problem.
“I never, never thought it would be as Technicolour as it proved,” the cardinal told the Associated Press in an interview in his flat near St Peter’s Square. “I didn't know that there was so much criminality involved.”
He said he felt a grim sense of vindication in the fact that the Vatican has been swept up in a fresh financial scandal over the last year, revolving around a multi-million pound property deal in London.
Pope Francis has ordered Vatican prosecutors to investigate allegations that the Holy See was fleeced in the purchase of a former Harrods car showroom in Sloane Avenue in Chelsea.
Brokers and middlemen allegedly made millions of euros in the sale of the €324 million (£292 million) property, which the Vatican wanted to turn into luxury apartments.
Angelo Becciu, the Italian cardinal who oversaw the deal as deputy head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, was summarily dismissed by Pope Francis in September and stripped of his rights as a cardinal, a highly unusual move.
Cardinal Becciu is known to have clashed with Cardinal Pell when the latter was economy minister and started to scrutinise the Vatican’s opaque finances.
The Italian’s fall from grace has been interpreted by some Vatican observers as a victory for the Australian in a tangled web of power politics at the heart of the Holy See.
The botched property deal “just might be staggering incompetence," rather than criminal wrongdoing, Cardinal Pell said.
He is unlikely to go back to Australia any time soon, according to Robert Mickens, a Vatican expert in Rome and the editor of La Croix International, a Catholic news website.
“I think he will hang around because he wants to be a player, an influencer in the next conclave,” the secretive process by which cardinals elect the next pope.
That could come sooner rather than later. “I believe that once Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI dies, Pope Francis will resign. Benedict set the precedent and I think Francis wants to do the same and to make it an option for popes in the future,” he said.
Cardinal Pell has written an account of his time behind bars, which included eight months in solitary confinement.
The book, Prison Journal, is due to be published on Dec 15, with the cardinal hoping that sales will help him pay the legal fees he incurred during five years of judicial process.