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More trouble for Pope Francis

26 July 2013

A challenge ahead: Pope Francis in Saturday's Guardian

A challenge ahead: Pope Francis in Saturday's Guardian

YOU can trust The Times to bring you the news that really matters, as it happens. On Monday morning, Ruth Gledhill, religious-affairs correspondent, tweeted: "If #royalbaby born by 16.54, will be Cancer, like Prince William & Princess of Wales. If ltr, will be Leo, like Princess Margaret."

That was about the extent of coverage of the religious significance of the birth of the next but two Supreme Governor of the Church of England. I suspect it's an accurate reflection of how much importance is really attached to the office in the media.

THE main religious stories of the week were all papal. Pope Francis's visit to World Youth Day in Brazil was preceded by a scandal unusually complicated and lurid, even by Vatican standards. The man the Pope picked to clean up the Vatican Bank turns out to have had a full and active social life when he was a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay.

As The Independent put it: "Pope's bank clean-up man 'found stuck in lift with rent boy'." That is perhaps a misfortune that could befall anyone. But the details reported in The Guardian and Damian Thompson's Telegraph blog were more damning. Damian first, if only because his endorsement of the Vatican as "a nasty place" deserves to be remembered:

"Pope Francis is discovering just what a nasty place the Vatican can be. Having acknowledged that there was a 'gay lobby' in the Curia, the Pope has been told that the man he's appointed to be prelate of the Vatican Bank, Monsignor Battista Ricca, has an allegedly scandalous gay past. Moreover, Ricca is not only Francis's personal representative at the bank: he's also Director of the Domus Santa Marta, where Francis has chosen to live. Indeed, the Pope often eats with the 57-year-old Ricca, whose supposed sexual indiscretions are the subject of an explosive article by Sandro Magister, Vatican expert of L'Espresso magazine."

John Hooper in The Guardian gave more of the detailed allegations: "The weekly magazine said Ricca was once beaten up in a gay bar in Montevideo, and that, when the lift at the nunciature broke down in the night, firefighters called to deal with the emergency found him inside with a local rent boy known to police.

"It said that, after he was transferred to Trinidad and Tobago, his alleged lover left trunks behind in Uruguay containing his effects. When they were opened later, they were found to contain a pistol, large numbers of prophylactics, and sizeable quantities of pornography, the magazine said. Ricca has not made any comment on the allegations."

That leads to the most remarkable aspect of the story. The Vatican has described the story as "not credible"; but, in response to this, Magister gave a magnificent counterblast. John L. Allen, in The National Catholic Reporter, takes up the story: "After the Vatican called the story 'not credible', L'Espresso fired back with a strongly worded response confirming the report 'point by point', insisting it was based on 'primary sources', and calling the Vatican's denial 'improbable and improvident'. . .

"For Magister and those who accept his analysis, a decade-long effort to conceal Battista's past is proof positive there's a shadowy network of people with secrets to keep in the Vatican, including some in senior positions, who protect and shelter their own and who thereby allow corruption to fester.

"That's what's usually meant by the term 'gay lobby', though most Italians don't understand it to refer just to secrets about sex, but also other skeletons in the closet such as financial improprieties or political manouevrings."

No one suggests that Pope Francis would have appointed Ricca had he known of the allegations. Even if they are baseless, they would obviously do huge damage. But it seems that they are pretty well grounded. There must at the very least have been an explanation on his personnel file of why he was transferred from Montevideo to Trinidad and Tobago - hardly the mark of a man going places he would want to go. So, where did that note disappear to, and when?

Thompson passes on a suggestion that the whole thing may be an elaborate plot by traditionalists to get at Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. I offer this as an example of the workings of a trained Vaticanologist's mind.

That, in turn, suggests something of the scale of the problems confronting Pope Francis. It's almost enough to make one feel Archbishop Welby has the easier job. Almost.

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