Pillaging the Monasteries: The Vatican’s Hidden Financial Scandal

New Vatican regulations have led to forcibly-shuttered monasteries’ assets being claimed by a bureaucratic monastic federation, the diocese, and the Vatican, raising questions on how decisions are made.

The Vatican is currently conducting the trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who stands accused of financial embezzlement and abuse of office regarding his involvement, with nine other actors, in the multi-million-dollar purchase of luxury London real estate. It remains to be seen whether Becciu will be found guilty in one of the most high-profile financial abuses involving the Curia in modern times. He maintains his innocence and claims to have been framed.

Whether Becciu is innocent or guilty, it is important for there to be an official investigation into the dealings of a powerful prelate who has been marred with scandal and intrigue. Catholics of good faith should demand a thorough accounting, and not simply of the ones which have grown too big or uncomfortable for the Vatican state to ignore. I am thinking particularly of the shameful silence that has descended upon the mysterious financial scandal swirling around Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Lest readers assume that I am advocating a financial witch hunt in the Curia, there is a particular urgency for transparency regarding Carballo. In 2018, Carballo created Cor Orans, a new set of rules for female contemplative orders. Among other things, Cor Orans created a death panel for monasteries to streamline their closure. In his regulations, these forcibly shuttered monasteries’ assets can be claimed by a bureaucratic monastic federation, the diocese, and the Vatican (regulations 72 and 73). Since 2018, the number of monasteries forced to close has reached levels described by Sister Maria Johanna Lauterbach, OCist., as an extinction

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Carballo has taken an active role in shuttering these monasteries globally and claiming for Vatican use what often amounts to millions of euros in assets and property. Just this past December, Carballo gave the keynote address at a Parisian symposium dedicated to the topic of optimizing real estate from monasteries shuttered by Cor Orans specifically. Another headline speaker and organizer was Dom David d’Hamonville, the emeritus abbot of the Saint-Benoit d’En Calcat abbey, which specializes in a huge hotel investment.  

Luxury hotels purchased from monastic assets seem to be a particular fixation of Carballo’s—and one with a shameful legacy and deeply disturbing unanswered questions. While he was the minister general of the Friars Minor, Carballo approved the purchase and restoration of a Roman property that became Il Cantico, a hotel so luxurious that an Italian newspaper called it a slap in the face to the spirit of St. Francis. The venue appears to be a frequent spot for the Italian Bishops’ Conference, situated as it is within a stone’s throw of Casa Santa Marta. The Friars Minor set the hotel up as a money maker for their charitable enterprises, but the hotel has helped lead to the Order’s financial ruin. 

Before a series of deaths led to a dismissal of the official police investigation and the story dropped like a stone out of the news cycle, Il Cantico was the focal point of a mystery: what happened to over 20 million euros of Friars Minor money? In 2018, Italian journalist Alberto Nerazzini attempted to get some answers to that question—and never got them. What he did piece together demands answers from Carballo, who has never satisfactorily explained his role in the gross financial mismanagement. It is especially urgent that Catholics demand an explanation since he has spent the years since his 2013 appointment to the Curia seizing monastic property and advocating for the creation of more luxury real estate development in the name of charity.

According to Nerazzini’s research, in 2007, Carballo, along with three regional Franciscan treasurers, Fathers Giancarlo Lati, Renato Beretta, and Clemente Moriggi, met with a rather mysterious broker named Leonida Rossi, who seemingly was involved in massive financial workings with a few other religious orders at the time. The result from this meeting was a half-decade partnership where the treasurers released millions of euros to Rossi for the sake of financial investment. Il Cantico and luxury hotels in Kenya were built, and in their construction, huge sums of money vanished. It appears that some sort of money laundering was occurring, leaving a 20-million-euro hole.

The strangest part is that the money has never been found and nobody appears to have profited. When the scandal broke, Leonida Rossi committed suicide before anyone could question him, though Nerazzini suggests that the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat troubling. In any case, investigators never found even the slightest trace of the money in his accounts or anywhere else. In a particularly odd twist, Rossi, who appears to have had no close family or friends, left Friar Beretta—one of the involved treasurers—as his heir. Beretta officially rejected the inheritance, although there was none to be had.

The Italian courts began prosecuting the three Franciscan treasurers who had been involved. The one other person present at the 2007 meeting, other than Carballo, was Fr. Francesco Bravi, the former vicar general. Bravi was named by the investigating judge as a prime witness for the financial scandal. However, as the Italian Gedi News Network reported, before his testimony was secured, Bravi passed away as well. While he appears to have died from heart issues, GNN could not refrain from noting that the timing was suspicious. 

The three treasurers were acquitted of all charges because—unbelievably—Italy’s statute of limitations was allowed to expire before their cases were finally brought to trial in 2018. The Friars Minor shuffled two of them—Lati and Beretta—off to obscure convents. Moriggi refused to go into such exile and was laicized. The friars were all clearly guilty of something—Moriggi even admitted that he had hidden incriminating documents under a refrigerator. When Nerazzini tracked down Beretta, the friar claimed that he had been ordered by his superiors to maintain silence about the entire situation. Significantly, however, none of the money was ever traced to these three—they appear to have committed grave financial crimes for free.

By this point, Carballo was a high-ranking member of the Curia, complete with diplomatic immunity—not that it seems he has ever needed it. When Nerazzini attempted to ask him for a comment about the scandal which took place exclusively during his administration of the Friars Minor, Carballo refused. It appears he has never said anything publicly about the issue and has never been formally investigated. The Friars Minor hierarchy simply insist that he knew nothing about it—even though he was literally present at the meeting that started it all and millions upon millions of euros vanished unnoticed into thin air until just after he left. In a scandal marked by suspicious timings, Carballo’s appointment to the Curia just weeks after Francis’ election and mere months before the scandal publicly broke is perhaps the most concerning.

It seems obvious that wherever the money went and whoever benefitted from it, the real estate purchases—ostensibly for charity—played a central role in the laundering of millions. Yet Carballo aggressively continues to promote using the seized assets of monasteries in charitable luxury real estate development. When, for example, Rome ordered the closure of the four-century-old contemplative Dominican monastery in Marradi, Italy, one of the first things the Vatican visitators demanded were the real estate documents. This was in 2019. The nuns refused to comply and, knowing their legal rights under Italian law, have refused to leave their monastery. 

Unfortunately, many more monasteries have folded under intense pressure couched as holy obedience. In France, where Carballo led the recent symposium on monastic real estate, the French journal Golias Hebdo complained that the Vatican has attempted to pressure nuns to voluntarily gift assets that are not legally able to be claimed by the Church according to French law. For instance, the contemplative Poor Clares of Lourdes discovered via the local newspaper in 2016 that their buildings were getting sold off for the benefit of the diocese. They also teamed up with lawyers and have retained control of their monastery.

Then there is the situation involving the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. Without wading into the issues surrounding the suppression of their Order, it is important to note the troubling and constant insistence from Vatican officials that the Order fork over 30 million in assets that a secular court had already ordered returned to its original lay owners. The investigation of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and its subsequent suppression was the first order of business undertaken by Carballo when he took his job as the secretary of religious life. Being a male religious order, the friars were not officially subject to the financial rules Carballo created for female monastic property in Cor Orans; however, there are rumors that a male version of that document is coming down the pike.

Why has there been no insistence for answers? If the Vatican wants to restore trust in the Curia and truly seeks financial reform, the promise of which helped to bring Francis to the Chair of Peter, Carballo must come clean about what he knew in this financial scandal—a scandal that looks vastly worse than the one in which Cardinal Angelo Becciu currently finds himself. And Rome had better provide some answers as to why dozens upon dozens of female monasteries around the world have been forced to pay the price for an archbishop’s unholy obsession with luxury real estate development over the preservation of contemplative life.

[Photo: Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo (Catholic News Agency)]

  • Mary Cuff

    Mary Cuff is an independent scholar, wife, and homeschooling mother. She holds a PhD in American literature from the Catholic University of America and has published in the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, Mississippi Quarterly, and Modern Age. She teaches online high school classical rhetoric courses at Homeschool Connections.

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