This was also the case for the investment in a luxury London property, at the center of the trial, which Becciu said was overseen by the administrative office. “If there were critical issues and [his deputy Monsignor Alberto] Perlasca did not tell me, he was guilty of a grave fault,” Becciu said.
Peter’s Pence was not the only source of funds used to fill holes in the Vatican budget. The Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the “Vatican bank,” makes an annual donation to the Holy See. For several years, the IOR’s check had been for 50 million euros, mainly intended to “cover the expenses of Vatican Radio and the nunciatures.”
But in 2012, when the IOR’s assets were 86.6 million euros (around $93 million), the contributions began to decline in line with a drop in profits, finally settling at around 30 million euros ($32 million).
The Secretariat of State, as the central body of the Holy See, was called on not only to manage itself economically and make investments, but also to help the Holy See survive financially. Yet, as later events showed, it was not equipped for this demanding task.
Tirabassi, an official who worked for more than 30 years in the Secretariat of State, shed further light on the dicastery’s workings when he was interrogated on May 20.
He also emphasized that the Secretariat of State had a budget separate from those of other dicasteries. But only in recent times was that budget discussed with the Secretariat for the Economy. The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, which operated from 1967 to 2016, mainly had a budgetary control function.
Tirabassi explained that when he arrived at the Secretariat of State, there was an Obolo Fund — Peter’s Pence is known in Italian as the “Obolo di San Pietro” — with an office in the dicastery dedicated to collecting donations.
The donations were managed by opening dedicated accounts in various banks and correspondent institutions (such as the IOR, APSA, Credito Artigiano, and Poste Italiana.) Within the IOR alone, “there were about 70 to 80 accounts outstanding.”
In the mid-1990s, this arrangement gave way to a more streamlined management of Vatican finances.
In light of the increasingly complicated requirements for financial transparency, managing all the accounts became too demanding. Thus, it was decided to make the resources converge in a single fund called the “Obolo Fund.” The Vatican’s promoter of justice described it as a “current account plan.”
“The Holy See was in difficulty,” recalled Tirabassi. “Moreover, the debt cost the Secretariat of State a lot. New accounting management was then suggested, dematerializing the existing accounts and enhancing the liquidity obtained from active assets.”
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A new investment policy arose, increasingly focused on real estate assets, particularly acquiring buildings to house nunciatures, which are one of the highest costs.
The term “Obolo,” therefore, does not refer exclusively to Peter’s Pence, which the Secretariat of State has not managed for some time. In this instance, it refers to the fund managed by the Secretariat of State, which retained the name “Obolo” though it concerns the dicastery’s resources.
Becciu has repeatedly asserted that the Secretariat of State only used “its assets” for investments in the London property, rejecting suggestions that the annual sums raised by the Peter’s Pence collection were used.
Yet, even if the Peter’s Pence collections had been used, it would not have been illegal. The Obolo di San Pietro, an ancient institution, has been seen as a means of supporting the Holy See since at least the 19th century. Its primary purpose, therefore, is to support the institution, while also helping the poor.
Could it be possible that, in the incident that triggered the finance trial, the auditor general misunderstood the Vatican’s structures and their raison d’être? If that were the case, the whole process would have to be rethought.
Misunderstandings have been constant in these years of economic reform. A purely financial view tends to overlook the distinctive history and structures of the Holy See, which contain a series of checks and balances settled over time.