ROME — In a cryptic late night announcement, the Vatican on Thursday said Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of one of the church’s most powerful officials, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, a fixture of church intrigues and internal power plays who also lost his rights as a cardinal.
The Vatican, in its one-sentence statement, did not explain the reason for the cardinal’s resignation as head of the department in charge of making saints but it comes amid his reported connection to a financial scandal involving a London real estate deal that hemorrhaged church money but enriched middlemen.
Cardinal Becciu has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
The wording of the announcement suggested that Cardinal Becciu had lost his vote in the next conclave, when voting cardinals will pick the next pope from among their ranks. Cardinals ordinarily lose their right to vote in the conclave when they turn 80; Cardinal Becciu is 72.
The statement did refer to him as “his eminence, cardinal,” however, suggesting he had retained his title.
Italy’s Vatican press reported that Francis shocked Cardinal Becciu on Thursday by demanding the resignation. A call to Cardinal Becciu’s residence was not answered on Thursday evening but the Italian news agency adnKronos said it had reached him. “I prefer silence,” it quoted him as saying.
On Thursday night observers and practitioners of Vatican power politics were asking: What exactly did Cardinal Becciu do wrong?
Cardinal Becciu is not your everyday eminence.
As a former sostituto, or chief of staff, in the Vatican’s secretariat of state under Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, he oversaw the Vatican’s ambassadors and played a major role in running the Curia, the bureaucracy that governs the Vatican, and had unfettered access to the pontiff.
He emerged as an important infighter, and a major character in conspiracies about alleged attempts to undercut financial reforms, when he suspended an audit of all Vatican departments by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
That audit had been approved by Cardinal George Pell of Australia, whom Francis had brought in as the Vatican’s chief economic official. He had sought to use less of the Peter’s Pence fund, intended for the poor, to plug budget deficits.
But Cardinal Pell ruffled Roman feathers through his gruff demeanor and bold steps, signing the audit contract as “manager of the Holy See.” Ultimately he was cut down by his involvement in a sexual abuse case, returning to Australia for trial in 2017.
His supporters constantly, if quietly, attributed his removal to a conspiratorial masterstroke by Cardinal Becciu, seen as the stubborn face of the Vatican old guard. (Cardinal Pell won an appeal of that case in May.)
Cardinal Becciu seemed a prelate on the rise in the Francis pontificate, often traveling with the pope. On June 28, 2018, when he received his red cardinal’s hat, bishops lined up to congratulate him.
But then in October 2019, Vatican prosecutors ordered a raid on the offices of the Vatican’s banking regulator as part of an investigation into the purchase of a London property that was bought in part with money donated by the faithful to the Peter’s Pence fund.
Francis himself had ordered the investigation, though he said on a papal flight to Tokyo in November 2019 that it was more responsible to invest the donations than “put it in a drawer.”
“You can also buy a property, rent it, and then sell it, but on a sure thing, with all the safety measures for the good of the people and of Peter’s Pence,” the pope said.
The investigation led to the resignation of the Vatican’s chief of security, the removal of several Vatican finance officials, and the arrest in June 2020 of an Italian banker who acted as an intermediary for the Holy See in the real estate transaction.
“We too have relied on people who did not deserve our trust,” Father Juan Antonio Guerrero, who succeeded Cardinal Pell as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, told Vatican News at the time.
Thursday’s statement suggests that Francis might no longer have trust in Cardinal Becciu, who was in charge of administrative duties when the deal was made.
Francis most recently punished a cardinal when he accepted the renunciation of the rights and privileges of Theodore E. McCarrick, the once powerful Cardinal archbishop of Washington. Francis then removed Mr. McCarrick from the priesthood after the church found him guilty of sexually abusing seminarians and minors.
Another cardinal, Keith O’Brien of Scotland, also relinquished his rights and privileges as a cardinal after anonymous priests accused him of sexual misconduct. But unlike Mr. McCarrick, he retained his title and remained a cardinaluntil his death in 2018.
The Vatican’s failure to explain why clerics like Cardinal Becciu lose their jobs is a frequent point of contention among advocates for sexual abuse survivors. It was clearly a terrible blow, though, for a prelate who once operated at the highest Vatican altitudes.
“I have served the pope with all my heart, be it Benedict or Francis,” he told The Tablet, a Catholic publication, just before his elevation to cardinal in 2018. “And this is what, as Christians, we should do,”
He added that Francis was a man of “unstoppable activity and energy” but noted that reform “has to be gradual, it has always been gradual in the Roman Curia.”