Powerful Vatican Cardinal Becciu resigns amid scandal

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The powerful head of the Vatican’s saint-making office, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, resigned suddenly Thursday from the post and renounced his rights as a cardinal amid a financial scandal that has reportedly implicated him indirectly.

The Vatican provided no details on why Pope Francis accepted Becciu’s resignation in a statement late Thursday. In the one-sentence announcement, the Holy See said only that Francis had accepted Becciu’s resignation as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints “and his rights connected to the cardinalate.”

Becciu, the former No. 2 in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, has been reportedly implicated in a financial scandal involving the Vatican’s investment in a London real estate deal that has lost the Holy See millions of euros in fees paid to middlemen.

The Vatican prosecutor has placed several Vatican officials under investigation, as well as the middlemen, but not Becciu. Becciu has denied all wrongdoing and it’s not clear whether the scandal, which has convulsed the Vatican for a year, is behind his resignation.

But the late-breaking news of his resignation, the severity of his apparent sanction, the Vatican’s tight-lipped release and the unexpected downfall of one of the most powerful Vatican officials all suggested a shocking new chapter in Francis’ already tumultuous seven-year pontificate.

The last time a cardinal’s rights were removed was when American Theodore McCarrick renounced his rights and privileges as a cardinal in July 2018 amid a sexual abuse investigation. He was subsequently defrocked altogether by Francis last year for sexually abusing adults as well as minors.

Before him, the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2015 relinquished the rights and privileges of being a cardinal after unidentified priests alleged sexual misconduct. O’Brien was, however, allowed to retain the cardinal’s title and he died a member of the College of Cardinals, the elite group of churchmen whose main job is to elect a pope.

In the Vatican statement, the Holy See identified Becciu as “His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Becciu,” making clear he remained a cardinal but without any rights.

At 72, Becciu would have been able to participate in a possible future conclave to elect Francis’ successor. Cardinals over age 80 can’t vote. But by renouncing his rights as a cardinal, Becciu has relinquished his rights to take part.

Becciu was the “substitute,” or top deputy in the secretariat of state from 2011-2018, when Francis made him a cardinal and moved him into the Vatican’s saint-making office. He straddled two pontificates, having been named by Pope Benedict XVI and entrusted with essentially running the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, a position that gave him enormous influence and power.

The financial problems date from 2014, when the Vatican entered into a real estate venture by investing over $200 million in a fund run by an Italian businessman. The deal gave the Holy See 45% of the luxury building at 60 Sloane Ave. in London’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The money came from the secretariat of state’s asset portfolio, which is funded in large part by the Peter’s Pence donations of Catholics around the world for the pope to use for charity and Vatican expenses.

The Holy See decided in November 2018, after Becciu had left the secretariat of state, to exit the fund, end its relationship with the businessman and buy out the remainder of the building. It did so after Becciu’s successor determined that the mortgage was too onerous and that the businessman was losing money for the Vatican in some of the fund’s other investments.

The buyout deal, however, cost the Vatican tens of millions of euros more and sparked the Vatican investigation that has so far implicated a half-dozen Vatican employees.

Becciu has insisted he wasn’t in power during the 2018 buyout deal and always acted in the sole interests of the Holy See. In the Vatican prosecutor’s initial warrant, Becciu is not named, and it remains unclear if his role in managing the secretariat of state’s vast asset portfolio was connected with the resignation.

Francis would meet regularly with Becciu in the Italian’s role as prefect of the saint-making office, since every month or two he would present lists of candidates for possible beatification or canonization for Francis to approve.

In addition, since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis had an annual luncheon date at Becciu’s apartment along with 10 priests on the Thursday of Holy Week leading up to Easter. The Vatican always reported the get-togethers were a chance for the pope to chat informally with Becciu and priests of his diocese on the day the church celebrates the institution of the priesthood.

The luncheon didn’t happen this year amid the Vatican’s coronavirus lockdown.