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Clean-up of Vatican finances becomes English-speaking operation

ROME – It's a telling fact that there's no exact equivalent in Italian for the English word "accountability," because as linguists know, when a language is missing a word it's often because the underlying concept doesn't quite resonate.

This may be why in the Pope Francis era, the financial management of the Vatican is increasingly becoming an English-speaking enterprise.

The latest step in that direction came today, when an Australian Catholic business manager informed priests in his Sydney archdiocese that he has been named to head up a project management office in the Vatican's new Secretariat for the Economy, created by Francis in February to oversee the financial clean-up operation.


Danny Casey, formerly the business manager for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, will join his old boss, Australian Cardinal George Pell, already tapped by Francis to head that secretariat.

The number two official in the secretariat is also an Anglophone, British Monsignor Brian Ferme, a former dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Washington, D.C.

Another key figure in the pope's financial reform initiative is Joseph F.X. Zahra, an economist who serves as the senior lay member of a new Council for the Economy created to set financial policy for the Vatican. Zahra is from Malta and therefore English-speaking, and previously served as the director of his country's central bank.

Several other senior officials now in positions of financial authority are not native English-speakers, but tend to be more comfortable in English than Italian. They include René Bruelhart, a Swiss attorney who heads the anti-money laundering "Financial Information Authority," and Ernst von Freyberg, a German businessman who serves as president of the "Institute for the Works of Religion," better known as the Vatican bank.

When Bruelhart recently held a Vatican news conference to present his office's annual report, for example, he spoke English, even in response to questions put to him in Italian.


As a matter of policy, personnel who work in the new secretariat will be required to be proficient in English.

In Casey, Pell has turned to a key ally with a track record of making church assets grow.

In March, Casey testified before a Royal Commission in Australia looking into the handling of child sexual abuse complaints in Sydney, and under examination he provided a detailed look into the archdiocese's books.

All told, Casey said, the total assets of the archdiocese have nearly doubled since 2004 to more than $1 billion at the end of last year. Over the same period, its net assets grew from $137 million to $192 million. (The values are in Australian dollars, though the current exchange rate with the American dollar is almost one-to-one.)

Even the presiding justice at the hearing, who clearly implied that more of those assets should have been paid in compensation to abuse victims, told Casey that the results were "commendable from your point of view."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Casey replied, according to the transcript. "There were some very healthy transactions in these years."

The Secretariat for the Economy where Casey will work recently established its offices in St. John's Tower, located on a hill on the westernmost tip of the Vatican City State and overlooking the Vatican gardens. It's the first time any department of the Vatican has been located in the structure, which was previously used to house popes while work was being done in the papal apartments as well as VIP guests.


One aim of the secretariat is to short-circuit the financial scandals that have repeatedly plagued the Vatican. Most recently, the former number two official under Pope Benedict XVI, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has been accused of using his influence to steer almost $20 million in Vatican bank loans to a film company run by a friend, funds that were eventually lost.

Vatican spokespersons have ruled out criminal charges against Bertone, but Pope Francis acknowledged the transaction is under review during an airborne press conference on his return flight from a recent trip to the Middle East.

"It's something that's under study," the pope said. "It's not clear. Maybe it could be true, but at this time nothing is definitive."

More broadly, the pope said he wants "honesty and transparency" in the administration of Vatican finances.

At the time, he was speaking in Italian. More and more, however, when those words float through Vatican air, they're likely to be uttered in English.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook