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Nearly two years ago, the Vatican began its historic prosecution of Cardinal Angelo Becciu and other defendants accused of extortion, fraud, money laundering, and misuse of Vatican funds, including charitable funds donated by American Catholics to the Peter’s Pence collection. Before the trial, Becciu had been one of the highest-ranking officials at the Vatican. On December 16, 2023, a Vatican court ruled that Becciu had engaged in embezzlement by using €200 million in Church funds to make speculative investments that “violated the provisions on the administration of ecclesiastical property” and sentenced him to more than five years in prison. 

While Becciu’s conviction confirmed the Vatican’s reputation for financial corruption, it also revealed the ways in which the Church in the United States has facilitated that corruption. For years, the U.S. Church has provided the Vatican with millions of dollars in donations but has imposed no meaningful restrictions on the Vatican’s use of those donations, allowing financial abuses to continue unchecked. Becciu’s conviction now provides an opportunity for the U.S. Church—bishops and laity together—to insist that the Vatican put in place meaningful financial safeguards to help prevent another financial scandal.

Much of the U.S. Church’s funding for the Vatican comes through the Peter’s Pence collection. A 2011 post on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) website illustrates how Peter’s Pence has traditionally been marketed to American Catholics and how they have responded:

The purpose of the Peter's Pence Collection is to provide the Holy Father with the financial means to respond with emergency assistance to those who are suffering as a result of war, oppression, natural disaster, and disease. This collection was started centuries ago to provide financial support for the Pope and has evolved to fund the Holy See's charitable actions for those in need. The Peter's Pence Collection has raised nearly $190 million to support our suffering brothers and sisters around the globe. THANK YOU for standing in solidarity with the Holy See with your generosity. 

Since 2011, American Catholics have contributed approximately $10 million per year to Peter’s Pence, representing about 25 percent of all contributions to the collection. Donations are typically taken up as second collections at the parish level, then transferred to the local bishop, and then to the nuncio, the Holy See’s ambassador to the United States, who transfers them to the Vatican. In 2019, when news leaked that very little of the Peter’s Pence collection was used to support the pope’s charitable initiatives, the U.S. bishops, the USCCB, and the nuncio were unable to explain how funds donated to the collection had been used because they had never required the Vatican to administer the funds in a responsible and transparent manner. 

The Vatican has recently confirmed that only about 20 percent of the Peter’s Pence collection goes to the poor; most of the collection is used to finance Vatican operations. The Vatican has also confirmed that it invests a portion of the donated funds, but where and how is unclear. One witness at the Becciu trial testified that funds from the Peter’s Pence collection were at one time held in more than seventy different accounts and were often pooled together with funds from other Vatican sources—making it impossible to tell how donations to the collection were really used. 

There are a number of steps the U.S. bishops can take to help the Vatican reform its financial practices. To start, the U.S. bishops should insist that the USCCB solicit donations for the Vatican in a transparent and honest manner. In fundraising for the Peter’s Pence collection, the USCCB should make explicit that approximately 80 percent of the collection is used to support Vatican operations, not the poor. The USCCB’s 2024 Peter's Pence Collection Bulletin Insert currently states that the “Holy Father’s charitable outreach to victims of war, migrants and refugees, and the poor affected by illness and natural disasters is supported by contributions to the Peter’s Pence Collection.” It ought to mention that a vast majority of contributions pay for overhead expenses at the Vatican. 

The U.S. bishops should also push the Vatican to have its financial statements audited by an independent Certified Public Accountant (CPA) firm. In 2015, Cardinal George Pell, then the Secretariat for the Economy, had retained the accounting firm PwC to audit the Vatican’s books and records. In 2016 Becciu overruled him and canceled the audit. 

Even if the Vatican does not agree to an audit, the U.S. bishops should insist that any monies donated by American Catholics be held by the Vatican in separate segregated accounts that are annually audited by an independent CPA firm. By putting these safeguards in place, the U.S. bishops can ensure that they will be able to explain to American Catholics how the money they donated to the Vatican is used.  

The laity also have a role to play in promoting financial accountability at the Vatican. American Catholics who are reluctant to give any more money to the Church should speak to their bishops about the need for financial reform. Canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law states that the laity have “the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church.”  

The laity should also start making donations to the Church in a way that protects their funds from misuse. Virtually all jurisdictions in the United States have adopted the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, a law that requires any charity or government agency receiving a charitable gift to use it in a manner consistent with donor intent. If a donor, at the time of making a gift, imposes written restrictions on how the gift may be used or invested, the organization receiving the gift must adhere to those restrictions. If enough American Catholics require in writing that their donations to the Peter’s Pence collection be held in a segregated account that is audited annually by an independent CPA firm, the Vatican will have no choice but to either adopt sound financial practices or turn away needed donations. 

Despite Pope Francis’s efforts to reform the Vatican’s financial operations, the Vatican is still not transparent in how it uses donated funds. Prior to the Becciu trial, the Vatican provided donors with virtually no financial information about the Peter’s Pence collection. In 2021 the Vatican started publishing a Peter’s Pence annual financial report. Unfortunately, the annual report is unaudited and provides only a few select “examples” of the charitable projects that the collection supports. It is a half-hearted effort by the Vatican to placate donors, rather than a serious attempt at transparency or accountability.

The U.S. Church should not accept half measures when responding to global crises. In 2002 the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which created procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. As written, the document applied only to priests and deacons, not to the U.S. bishops themselves. It was not until former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of young men came to light that the U.S. bishops addressed this shortcoming. If the U.S. Church wants to avoid another global financial scandal, it should demand nothing less than comprehensive financial reform of the Vatican. 

The Church’s mission is to save souls. If the Church is constantly embroiled in scandals, its ability to effectively share the good news will continue to be compromised. With the conviction of Becciu, the U.S. bishops, as well as the laity, have an opportunity now to help the Vatican implement meaningful financial safeguards that can enable the Church to refocus on proclaiming the gospel instead of prosecuting its clerics. May the U.S. Church seize this moment to act.

Brendan Wilson is an adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School and a partner in the law firm of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Image by Monchelsea via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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