Pope replaces saint-making chief as corruption scandal grows

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis, flanked by bishop Marcello Semeraro, leaves at the end of a morning session of the Synod of bish...
FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2020 Cardinal Angelo Becciu talks to journalists during a press conference in Rome. Italy’s financial police said Wednesday, ...

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis, flanked by bishop Marcello Semeraro, leaves at the end of a morning session of the Synod of bish...

FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2020 Cardinal Angelo Becciu talks to journalists during a press conference in Rome. Italy’s financial police said Wednesday, ...

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis named a new head for the Vatican’s saint-making office Thursday to replace the once-powerful cardinal at the center of a growing corruption scandal that has raised questions about the current Holy See leadership.

Francis on Thursday promoted the Italian bishop who has been closely involved in efforts to draft a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, Mons. Marcello Semeraro, to head the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Semeraro has served as the secretary of the commission of cardinals that Francis created in 2013 to reform the organizing constitution of the Vatican Curia.

He replaces Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was fired as prefect of the saint-making office in September. Francis cited evidence that Becciu, when he was the powerful No. 2 in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, sent 100,000 euros ($117,000) in Vatican funds to a charity controlled by his brother.

Becciu, whose rights and privileges as a cardinal were also yanked, has admitted he sent the money but insisted it was destined for the charity, not his brother.

In the weeks since his ouster, Becciu’s name has increasingly figured in Italian media reports about the Vatican’s corruption investigation, even though his successor in the job, Monsignor Edgar Pena Parra, was actually in charge when questionable payments were made that have cost the Holy See tens of millions of euros.

For over a year, Vatican prosecutors have been investigating the Holy See’s 350-million-euro investment into a London real estate venture and the Italian middlemen who are accused of having fleeced the Vatican of tens of millions of euros in fees. Becciu was in charge when the initial investment was made but not subsequent investments or the fee payments.

This week, the prosecutors' investigation took a remarkable new twist with the arrest Tuesday in Milan on an international warrant of a self-described intelligence specialist, Cecilia Marogna.

Marogna has said she approached Becciu in 2015 concerned about security for Vatican embassies, and was paid 500,000 euros as compensation, travel reimbursements and other fees from the Vatican secretariat of state for her consultancy work.

The Italian investigative television program Le Iene on Oct. 2 published the letter of recommendation from Becciu, on official Vatican letterhead and dated Nov. 17, 2017, in which he offered his “trust and esteem” in Marogna’s professional capabilities and identifies her as a “geopolitical analyst and foreign relations consultant for the Secretariat of State.”

The following week, Le Iene produced bank statements apparently from Marogna’s Slovenia-based firm showing wire transfers from the secretariat of state. She told Le Iene producer Gaetano Pecoraro that the payments were reimbursement for work done over four years.

The payments started in December, 2018, six months after Becciu had left the secretariat of state and was replaced by Pena Parra. The fees continued into 2019, even after the deputy directly in charge of making such payments, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca, was transferred out of the secretariat of state.

Pena Parra is also the official who was in charge when his deputy Perlasca, in three contracts dated Nov. 22-23 and Dec. 3, 2018, authorized enormous payments to Italian middlemen for the Holy See to exit money-losing funds related to the London real estate venture. Such payments would have required the authorization of Perlasca's superiors.

Pena Parra to date has not been implicated in the Vatican investigation or named as a suspect and is not among the original half-dozen Holy See employees who lost their jobs as a result of the probe. The Vatican has not responded to questions about the status of the investigation, or whether Pena Parra is believed to have been merely cleaning up a financial mess of Becciu's making.

Becciu, who like Marogna is from Sardinia, has defended the London real estate venture as sound and insisted his relations with Marogna involved only “institutional affairs.”