By NICOLE WINFIELD
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Other than St. Peter’s Basilica, there is hardly better real estate in Vatican City than the sprawling penthouse apartment in the Vatican gardens, where the rooftop terrace has in-your-face views of the dome itself and overlooks the hotel that Pope Francis calls home.
The 300-square-meter (3,230-square-foot) bachelor pad, belonging to the previous pope’s second-in-command, looked even better after undergoing a 422,000-euro ($481,000) face-lift.
Who footed the bill? The Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital foundation, which raises money for sick children at the “pope’s hospital” in Rome.
A recent Associated Press investigation uncovered a secret 2014 Vatican probe that found that the hospital’s mission under its past administration had become “more aimed at profit” than patient care. Now the renovations at Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s flat have sparked a criminal trial that shines a light on how some of that money was spent.
The Vatican on Tuesday will put its past hospital president, Giuseppe Profiti, and former hospital treasurer, Massimo Spina, on trial on charges they diverted hospital donations to renovate Bertone’s retirement fixer-upper. The Vatican tribunal, located just steps away from the palazzo in question, has warned the two defendants would be tried in absentia if they don’t show up.
It’s the latest financial scandal to strike the Holy See as Francis works to clean up centuries of shady business dealings in the walled-in, 44-hectare offshore city state, the world’s smallest. And it comes as Francis copes with the fallout from the embarrassing exit of his top financial adviser, Cardinal George Pell, who returned to his native Australia last week to face trial on years-old sex abuse charges.
Profiti, who had been appointed hospital president by Bertone in 2008, has said the 422,000 euros in hospital foundation funds that he used to spruce up Bertone’s home was an investment, since he intended to use it for fundraising events for the hospital.
“The presence of Your Illustrious Eminence as a guest at these events would be a guarantee of a certain success in terms of participation and relative economic and institutional return,” Profiti wrote Bertone in a Nov. 7, 2013 letter pitching the idea.
He proposed that the soirees take place in Bertone’s own home, with its glorious views and close-to-the-pope pedigree, to “give a further sense of exclusiveness and privilege” to potential benefactors.
Bertone readily agreed, replying the following day that he would take care himself to ensure that “third parties” — and not the foundation — would pay for whatever renovations were needed. Whatever happened to those “third parties” is unclear, but Bertone himself spent 300,000 euros of his own money for the work on top of the 422,000 that came from the foundation.
Bertone’s successor as Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the trial is evidence of the transparency Pope Francis wants to bring to the Catholic Church’s finances.
“And it’s only right that everyone accounts for his or her own behavior,” Parolin said last week when the indictments were handed down.
Bertone wasn’t charged or placed under investigation, even though he personally benefited from the donations. After the scandal broke in 2015, Bertone made a 150,000-euro “donation” to the hospital for research, but insisted he had no idea the foundation had paid for his flat repair.
Similarly not charged was the Castelli Re construction company or its owner, Gianantonio Bandera, a longtime Bertone associate who pocketed nearly a quarter-million euros for the whole project.
The indictment, in fact, accuses Profiti and Spina of “illicitly using money belonging to the Baby Jesus foundation to benefit Bandera.”
It wasn’t the first time the foundation’s cash had been used for eyebrow-raising ends: In 2012, the foundation headed by Profiti spent 24,000 euros to ferry Bertone by helicopter to southern Potenza to open a satellite branch of Bambino Gesu. Profiti justified the expense by saying Bertone’s busy schedule required he fly to attend the launch.
Bertone’s apartment is owned by the Vatican, but was assigned to Bertone for his personal use after he retired as Pope Benedict XVI’s secretary of state in 2013. Located on the edge of the Vatican gardens, the third-floor apartment in the Palazzo San Carlo sits in the shadow of the two-room hotel suite where Francis lives and preaches his “church of the poor and for the poor” gospel. Ironically, the Vatican’s financial intelligence agency is located in the same building.
Bertone has defended his apartment’s relatively large size — some 3,230 square feet (300 square meters) — by saying other cardinals have even bigger apartments and that he lives there with a secretary and three nuns who help care for him, and that he needed the space for his archive, library and chapel. His former boss, Benedict, has occupied prime real estate on the other side of the Vatican gardens, taking over an entire converted monastery after he retired in 2013.
Profiti resigned suddenly as president of the hospital in January 2015, nine months into a new three-year term. According to the AP investigation, a secret Vatican-authorized task force concluded in 2014 that under his administration, the hospital’s mission had been “lost” and was “today more aimed at profit than on caring for children.”
The AP inquiry found that children sometimes paid the price as the medical center expanded its specialized transplant services, increased volume and tried to cut costs, with overcrowding and poor hygiene contributing to deadly infections. One extremely drug-resistant superbug outbreak that wore on for nearly two years killed eight children in the hospital’s cancer ward.
The hospital has called the AP report a “hoax” and denied problems. Parolin said some issues flagged by hospital staff were “truly unfounded” but acknowledged there were past problems that the current administration was working to fix.
After the task force turned in the results of its three-month investigation in April 2014, the Vatican ordered a second in-house clinical assessment into childcare at the hospital. After a three-day visit in early 2015, that investigation found the hospital in many ways was “best in class.”
There’s no indication either report was provided to Italian public health authorities, who pay most of the hospital’s bills and technically have clinical oversight over it.
At the same time, a Vatican-ordered external audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers confirmed in 2014 that the hospital’s mission had been “modified in the last few years” to focus on expansion and commercial activities without sufficient governance controls. The audit, portions of which were obtained by the AP, flagged particular problems with the fundraising foundation. PwC found that five years after it was created, the foundation still didn’t have an executive committee, audit board or organizational model as called for by its statutes.
The audit and details of the Bertone apartment renovation were first revealed in a 2015 book, “Avarice,” by Italian investigative journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi and another Italian journalist were subsequently put on trial at the Vatican for having obtained leaked Vatican documents. The court ultimately ruled it had no jurisdiction to prosecute them.
In April of last year, Fittipaldi published the exchange of letters between Profiti and Bertone detailing Profiti’s proposal to use the cardinal’s apartment for fundraising events.
“I’m just sorry that Bertone was allowed to stay in his penthouse, while the journalist who discovered the scandal ended up on trial,” Fittipaldi said in an email last week. “Different standards for different people.”