Why did a request from Pope Francis throw a respected American Catholic charity into crisis?
A dispute between US cardinals and wealthy supporters of a major Catholic philanthropic organisation emerged publicly last week. Leaked documents published by LifeSiteNews showed the prelates pushed through an extraordinary $25 million in financial assistance to a scandal-ridden and failing Roman hospital, at Pope Francis’s behest and over the objections of laymen on the board of the organisation giving the assistance.
That organisation is the Philadelphia-based Papal Foundation, founded in 1988 as a fundraising engine to meet the financial needs of the Holy See in the wake of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal. The foundation relies on the support of wealthy donors, who each pledge no less than $1 million over 10 years, in doing so becoming “stewards” of the foundation.
When a measure of financial stability returned to the Holy See, the Papal Foundation’s primary activity became the support of charitable initiatives dear to the Holy Father, in grants given upon request by the Vatican in amounts usually not in excess of $200,000. The Papal Foundation has done great good, especially for Catholic organisations working in the world’s poorest nations. But something went wrong this time around.
Late last year and in early January, the Papal Foundation approved initial assistance packages of $8 million and $5 million for the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata, a Rome-based outfit wrapped up in scandals involving alleged money laundering and reeling from a roughly $1 billion siphoning scheme. (A four-year investigation led to 24 separate indictments last year.) The Vatican named new hospital leadership in 2017.
An unofficial summary prepared by James Longon, the chairman of the Papal Foundation’s audit committee, declares: “[B]oth the process by which the grant was given [and] the grant itself are disturbing. In my opinion … these recent actions will make it virtually impossible to recruit new stewards, or to retain the membership of many current stewards. In many respects, the decision to grant $25 million to a dermatology hospital in Rome without proper due diligence is a disaster for the Papal Foundation.”
The board maintains that due diligence was conducted, but Longon resigned from the committee and as a trustee.
The clerical leadership of the Papal Foundation – including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC – wrote a letter to the stewards, insisting that the money went to the Vatican. “[W]e did not send money to a hospital,” the board’s letter to stewards reads, “[w]e sent money to the Holy See.”
Longon’s summary says: “This is a badly run business venture, not a helping of our Church or a helping of the poor. Cardinal Wuerl stated that the Holy Father is simply turning to the Papal Foundation for assistance to get through that bridge time while the hospital gets back on its feet. Sounds like a business loan to me.”
In the wake of the row, the cardinals walked back their promise of assistance. Cardinal Wuerl has requested that the Vatican not accept the outstanding $12 million. The cardinals have also promised increased lay involvement to approve requests greater than $1 million.
That’s all fine, but when a group of successful business leaders raise issues over the prudence of a measure involving the money they earned, one tends to think it wise to heed them. So, how did this happen?
The answer is, in a word, clericalism. The stewards upon whose generosity the Papal Foundation depends are businessmen of great acumen, long years’ experience and extraordinary accomplishment. More to the point, they are stewards – at least they are styled so – and do not take kindly to being treated as cash cows. “It felt like irresponsible and immoral stewardship,” Longon told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m 73,” he added, “and getting close to Judgment Day.”
Frankly, when churchmen who have spent their entire careers playing with house money hear such objections and reply to the effect that there’s nothing to see here, one tends to think that perhaps there is.
“The Papal Foundation has bylaws that put the ultimate control of the organisation in the hands of the US-domiciled cardinals,” the board’s letter reminds the stewards who have given their time and treasure. “No one,” the letter continues, “has ever represented that this organisation is controlled by the laity.”
For all their talk about the need for informed and dedicated lay leadership in areas of Church life in which lay persons have particular expertise in virtue of their experience and vocation, the old maxim sometimes still applies: “Pray, pay, obey.”