The cardinal Archbishop of Naples will cooperate with a corruption investigation, the Vatican has said, after the Church was dragged into the biggest scandal facing Italy in years.
Police investigating the “Great Works” probe are looking into the property and other financial dealings of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe while he led the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, known as Propaganda Fide, from 2001 until 2006.
Investigators are looking into allegations that the cardinal sold property below market value to a government minister who then allocated public funds for work on the Vatican building housing the congregation. There are also questions about how the cardinal helped a government official – now also under investigation – find a flat in one of Rome’s most exclusive districts.
The wider allegations include bribery and sexual favours involving businessmen, members of the Church hierarchy and public officials. Among those being investigated is Guido Bertolaso, special commissioner for the 2009 Aquila earthquake disaster fund and a top aide to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Prosecutors hope to determine if corruption influenced the awarding of contracts worth several billion euros for various large-scale projects, among them the rebuilding of L’Aquila and the preparation of the 2000 Jubilee Year events in Rome.
Although the media cannot reveal details of investigations before any indictments are brought, Mr Bertolaso said after his interrogation that he was allowed to live rent-free in a Propaganda Fide-owned palazzo in the Via Giulia, one of Rome’s most expensive streets. The rent was allegedly paid by Diego Anemone, a construction tycoon at the heart of the alleged ring.
Newspapers say police are also investigating several other Propaganda Fide properties given to figures in the probe during Cardinal Sepe’s tenure at the well-financed Vatican missionary office.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi said the Vatican supported Cardinal Sepe.
Fr Lombardi added that, while Cardinal Sepe had “the right to be respected and esteemed”, the Vatican wanted the “situation to be cleared up fully and rapidly, so that shadows on him and on Church institutions can be eliminated.”
“Cardinal Sepe is a person who has worked and works intensely and generously for the Church and for the people entrusted to him and who has a right to be respected and esteemed,” Fr Lombardi said.
“As he himself has said, Cardinal Sepe obviously will collaborate in reaching this clarification,” he said.
Cardinal Sepe said: “I always did everything with maximum transparency. I always acted in accordance with my conscience, having the good of the Church as my only objective.”
Also under investigation is Pietro Lunardi, who allegedly purchased a Propaganda Fide palazzo in Rome in 2004, while minister of infrastructure, for a fraction of its real worth.
Also arrested was Angelo Balducci, a former government official for public works who was quietly dropped from the ranks of those who serve as honorary ushers at Vatican ceremonies. Mr Berlusconi’s industry minister, Claudio Scajola, has already been forced by the probe to resign after it was disclosed that he had purchased a property with a view of the Colosseum with the alleged help of £740,000 from an associate of construction Diego Anemone.
Cardinal Sepe was widely praised for his work overseeing the smooth running of the 2000 Holy Year, which drew millions of pilgrims to Rome amid a flurry of construction in the capital. John Paul made the 57-year-old a Cardinal early in 2001 in what was widely seen as a reward. But he was transferred to Naples in 2006 under Benedict XVI.