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Dispute over Papal Foundation’s $25 million grant approval continues

Vatican City, Apr 16, 2019 / 05:36 pm (CNA).- Scrutiny continues for the U.S.-based Papal Foundation, amid questions of whether some of its grant activity was motivated by a desire to secure leniency for disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The ongoing controversy surrounds the foundation’s decision to make an unprecedented grant to a leading Italian hospital whose former leadership had faced accusations of massive embezzlement and financial misconduct.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the outgoing Archbishop of Washington, made “false and misleading” statements about the grantee to the foundation board, said Matthew B. O’Brien, a Philadelphia-based writer, in an April 12 essay for First Things. O’Brien cited several people involved with the Papal Foundation who spoke on background and provided copies of foundation meeting minutes and legal reviews.

“He painted a picture of a hospital that was experiencing momentary cash-flow problems, but was otherwise sound,” O’Brien charged. “Wuerl’s actions are especially questionable in light of what he knew at the time about then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s interest in securing the grant.”

“Wuerl was aware that McCarrick stood to win leniency in his sex abuse case if the Papal Foundation secured $25 million for the Vatican’s Secretary of State,” said O’Brien.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Papal Foundation, challenged this interpretation. His statement, quoted in O’Brien’s essay, said there were “a variety of interpretations” of the financial condition of the grantee and its sponsoring entities.

“Clearly there were different readings of available information, but it is not correct to characterize the presentation of Cardinal Wuerl or other participants at the Board meeting as false or misleading,” Corallo said.

Since 1990, the foundation has given over $100 million to support projects and proposals recommended by the Holy See. American cardinals are ex officio leaders of the foundation, though it has a significant number of lay board members. Grants are made for needs that are particularly significant to the pope, and often go to institutions and organizations in developing nations. The grants typically do not exceed $200,000 each.

The foundation’s approval of a $25 million grant to a financially and legally troubled Italian hospital became a major controversy among board members who argued the grant was approved without due diligence. This controversy drew media coverage in early 2018.

After the June 2018 exposure of sex abuse allegations against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a past Washington archbishop, further questions were raised about the possibility of further corruption, the use of funds for undue influence, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s knowledge of McCarrick’s abuse.

In December 2017, the foundation approved a $25 million grant to the Rome hospital Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata (IDI). According to O’Brien, this approval came in response to a request from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, made on behalf of Pope Francis.

The hospital, which had been under the direct ownership of the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, remains one of the leading dermatological hospitals in Italy.

In 2013, Italian authorities arrested a priest who was its chief executive through 2011 and two others for allegations dating back as far as 2005. They were convicted on charges relating to the embezzlement of 6 million euros in public money from the hospital and diversion of another 82 million euros. The hospital allegedly evaded taxes on 450 million euros. Its debt of over 800 million euros led to bankruptcy.

Financial reorganization led to the purchase of the hospital and its affiliates through a partnership between the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception and the Vatican Secretariat of State. This partnership owns and operates the IDI hospital and its affiliates through the non-profit Fondazione Luigi Maria Monti and a limited liability subsidiary, Luigi Maria Monti, S.r.l.

At the Papal Foundation’s December 2017 meeting that approved the grant, O’Brien charged, Wuerl made two false statements recorded in the meeting minutes: he wrongly claimed that the religious congregation involved in the hospital during the time of fraud, embezzlement and insolvency was no longer involved; and he understated the debt of the hospital and its affiliates after April 2015 insolvency proceedings.

Corallo, a Papal Foundation spokesman, said there were “a variety of interpretations” of the financial condition of the IDI and its sponsoring entities. The relationship of the religious congregation and the IDI was “still unclear,” he said, and all discussion was made difficult by “conflicting interpretations.” Wuerl’s December 2017 presentation used both publicly available information and information “provided by the Holy See.”

“Other interpretations were also offered,” said Corallo.

O’Brien countered that much information, including the $60 million debt and the continued involvement of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, were available publicly. He argued that Wuerl “does not appear to have taken any steps to clarify the crucial information about the supposed beneficiary of the $25 million grant.”

Wuerl told the board that the IDI group owed $26 million in payables but did not mention a $60 million mortgage debt, O’Brien said. He added that Wuerl resisted lay board members’ requests for financial statements from the hospital.

McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor as Archbishop of Washington, at the time was an ex officio member of the foundation board.

O’Brien said Wuerl knew that McCarrick could win leniency in the Vatican’s treatment of his sex abuse case if he were able to secure the grant for the hospital, at the request of the Vatican Secretary of State.

Wuerl also failed to disclose that a Vatican dicastery for which he is a board member, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), is apparently a creditor of the troubled IDI, O’Brien said. The APSA lent 50 million euros to the IDI as part of its reorganization.

O’Brien said it is still unknown whether the first part of the grant, worth $13 million, was delivered to the Fondazione Luigi Maria Monti. According to O’Brien, the Papal Foundation has not said whether it has sent the final part of the grant.

Cardinal Wuerl in a Jan. 19, 2018 letter asked the Holy See to decline about half the grant. In February 2018, a Papal Foundation spokesman told the National Catholic Register it is not the foundation’s practice to comment on individual grant requests.

The Papal Foundation was launched in 1988 by Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and then-Archbishop of Newark Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick would go on to become a cardinal and Archbishop of Washington and also president of the foundation.

The revelations that McCarrick had sexually abused minors and seminarians would lead to his resignation from the College of Cardinals and removal from the clerical state. The revelations would lead to many questions about his influence as a global diplomat and fundraiser and whether his abuse was known and covered up by prominent churchmen.

In a September 28, 2018 essay at First Things, O’Brien had criticized McCarrick’s “manifest and gross conflict of interest” because he stood to benefit personally if, by securing the grant, “he could win leniency in how [the Vatican] handled his sex abuse case.” O’Brien argued that under Pennsylvania law which governs the Papal Foundation, directors of non-profits are obliged to disclose material conflicts of interest to the organization’s directors and officers, and recuse themselves from relevant board decisions.

O’Brien said foundation board members had told him that foundation grants had been audited in 2015 or 2016, finding a lack of records for many grants and other records indicating poor oversight on the part of the grant recipients or middlemen, who were sometimes papal nuncios.

A spokesman for the papal foundation, cited in O’Brien’s September 2018 essay, said it is making “every effort” to ensure grants are acknowledged and reported. He said the foundation is audited annually and it has been confirmed that the foundation’s procedures and operations are consistent with its bylaws and mission. At the same time, O’Brien cited a December 2017 letter from the foundation’s attorneys noting an apparent failure to confirm that grant recipients operated in a way analogous to U.S. charities and an apparent failure to obtain meaningful audits or accountings of how the grants were spent.

In March 2018 the foundation said its executive committee and board made an inadequate effort to address and correct what it said was “anonymous, inaccurate and misleading information related to the grant request” as well as “unsubstantiated claims that called into question the integrity of the request by the Holy See and of members of the board.”

The foundation said it would review its mission, its grant-making approach and its relationship with the Holy See. This review comes after its “intensive, six-month review and approval of a special request by the Vatican for assistance with a three-year financial reform plan” for the IDI hospital.

In October 2018, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston was elected chairman of the Papal Foundation’s board of trustees. O’Malley had been a member of the board for 12 years previously. He succeeded Cardinal Wuerl, who had been chairman for eight years.

“The Papal Foundation remains committed to assisting our Holy Father in meeting needs that face the Church,” the Papal Foundation told CNA April 16, in a statement sent by its vice president for advancement James Coffey.

“To do this, we look to the future with an expanded Board of Trustees that will give an opportunity for greater collaboration for the laity and the clergy to work together for the benefit of the Church and many who face great needs.”

Pope Francis joins Paris in sorrow after Notre-Dame fire

Vatican City, Apr 16, 2019 / 05:28 am (CNA).- Pope Francis Tuesday expressed his unity with the people of France following a major blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, encouraging the rebuilding of the “architectural jewel” and “witness of the faith.”

“Following the fire that devastated a large part of Notre-Dame Cathedral, I join you in your sadness, as well as that of the faithful of your diocese, the inhabitants of Paris and all the other French,” the pope said April 16.

In a message to Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris, he wrote: “Notre-Dame is the architectural jewel of a collective memory, the gathering place for many major events, the witness of the faith and prayer of the Catholics in the city.”

“On these Holy Days when we remember the passion of Jesus, his death and his resurrection, I assure you of my spiritual closeness and my prayer,” he said, extending his apostolic blessing on the French bishops, Catholics, and all the inhabitants of Paris and France.

Pope Francis sent his condolences in the wake of a major fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, which started shortly before 7pm local time April 15.

The fire was brought under control shortly after midnight April 16, and totally extinguished several hours later.

The roof of the French cathedral collapsed along with its spire, but the main bell towers and historic edifice of the building were saved.

Reports also indicate that the major religious and artistic treasures of the cathedral were removed as the fire began, including a relic of the crown of thorns.  

Paris’ prosecutor has said it is inquiring into “accidental destruction by fire.” A French official said April 16 the fire was not intentionally started.

Pope Francis wrote that he is aware that the fire has caused serious damage not only to what is a historic site, but “a national symbol dear to the hearts of Parisians and French people in the diversity of their convictions.”

He hopes the Paris cathedral will be reconstructed to become once again “this beautiful setting in the heart of the city, a sign of the faith of those who built it, mother church of your diocese, architectural and spiritual heritage of Paris, France and humanity.”

Pope Francis also praised the firefighters for their work and their courage.

Papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti wrote on Twitter early April 16 that the pope is praying for French Catholics and for the people of Paris and that “he assures his prayers for all those who strive to cope with this tragic situation.”

Don’t let your cell phone become an addiction, pope warns high schoolers

Vatican City, Apr 15, 2019 / 05:28 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis met with a group of high school students this weekend, encouraging them to monitor their cell phone use, so as not to create obstacles to a culture of encounter.

Students from Visconti High School visited with the pope at Paul VI Hall on April 13. The meeting comes a month after the 450th anniversary of the birth of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. The saint was known for his charitable work with the poor, which resulted in him contracting the plague and dying at the age of 23.

The school’s building in Rome houses the remains of Gonzaga, who is the patron saint of the youth. Gonzaga himself attended the school. Pope Francis praised the saint for his willingness to encounter those around him, particularly those in need.

In modern times, the pope warned, we must be cautious of anything that tears us away from encounter and authentic relationships. While cell phones can be a valuable tool for communication, they can also reduce our freedom and present an obstacle to true dialogue, he said.

“Free yourself from dependence on your mobile phone, please!” Francis said. “You have certainly heard of the drama of addiction…This one is very subtle.”

“Be careful, as there is the danger that, when the telephone is a drug, communication is reduced to simple ‘contacts’. But life is not for ‘contacting’, it is for communicating!”

The pope emphasized the importance of the school system as a place of communication, especially between cultures. The Church promotes fraternity, he said, noting that this requires a foundation of freedom, truth, solidarity, and justice.

“The dialogue between different cultures and different people enriches a country, enriches the homeland and enables us to move ahead in mutual respect, enables us to go ahead looking at one earth for all, not just for some,” he said.

Pope Francis also commented on the important role modesty and fidelity have within friendships. He stressed that love is not solely an emotional reality but a responsibility.

“The sense of modesty refers to a vigilant conscience that defends the dignity of the person and authentic love, precisely so as not to trivialize the language of the body. Faithfulness, then, along with respect for the other, is an indispensable dimension of every true relationship of love, since one cannot play with feelings.”

Pope Francis’ concerns about cell phone addictions echo those of technology experts in recent years, as computer and phone use have become more prevalent among children and teens, raising concerns about academic performance, social wellbeing and overall quality of life.

Psychologist Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” spoke to CNA last September about trends in technology.

The average daily screen time for teenagers is high above the recommended two hours, Twenge noted. “Beyond that, the risks increase, topping out at the highest levels of use,” she said.

She pointed to a 2015 study from the research group Common Sense Media. It stated that over half of teens in the U.S. spent at least four hours in front of a screen and 25% were reported to have been in front of a screen for more than eight hours a day, with detrimental effects.

“For example, teens who use electronic devices 5 or more hours a day are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those using devices less than an hour a day,” Twenge said. “They are also 51% more likely to not sleep enough. Teens who are online 5 or more hours a day are twice as likely to be unhappy as those online less than an hour a day.”

Pope Francis has spoken on the moderation of technology in the past. During a 2016 homily, he highlighted the damages television and cell phones can have on family encounters.

“In our families, at the dinner table, how many times while eating, do people watch the TV or write messages on their cell phones? Each one is indifferent to that encounter. Even within the heart of society, which is the family, there is no encounter.”

He said it is the responsibility of the family to seek out dialogue in which the person is truly seen and heard rather than treated as an object of indifference.

“We are accustomed to a culture of indifference and we must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter, of a fruitful encounter, of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God, the dignity of a living person,” he said.

 

Pope Francis on Palm Sunday: True triumph is found in Christ’s humility

Vatican City, Apr 14, 2019 / 04:37 am (CNA).- On Palm Sunday, Pope Francis warned against the temptation of “triumphalism,” encouraging Catholics to follow Jesus’s way of humility and obedience exemplified in His Passion.

“Joyful acclamations at Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, followed by his humiliation. Festive cries followed by brutal torture. This twofold mystery accompanies our entrance into Holy Week each year,” Pope Francis said in his homily April 14.

The pope prayed for the grace “to follow in faith our Savior’s example of humility, to heed his lesson of patient suffering, and thus to merit a share in his victory over the spirit of evil.”

“Humility does not mean denying reality: Jesus really is the Messiah, truly the King,” Pope Francis said.

Processing through the crowds with palms and olive branches in St. Peter’s Square for the first liturgy of Holy Week, Pope Francis said that Christ responded to the temptation of “triumphalism” in His entrance into Jerusalem by “holding fast to his own way, the way of humility.”

Pope Francis explained that by “triumphalism” he means engaging in “shortcuts and false compromises,” without being “forged in the crucible of the cross.”

“Brothers and sisters, there is no negotiating with the cross: one either embraces it or rejects it,” Francis said.

“True triumph involves making room for God and the only way to do that is by stripping oneself, by self-emptying. To remain silent, to pray, to accept humiliation,” he continued.

“Jesus shows us how to face moments of difficulty” with “confident abandonment to the Father and to his saving will, which bestows life and mercy,” the pope explained.

The pope emphasized the importance of “the silence of Jesus” throughout His Passion. “By our silent witness in prayer we give ourselves and others ‘an accounting for the hope that is within,’” he said.

“Our place of safety will be beneath the mantle of the holy Mother of God,” Francis explained. “In the footsteps of Mary, countless holy men and women have followed Jesus on the path of humility and obedience.”

“In this way, triumphalism, destroyed by the abasement of Jesus, was likewise destroyed in the heart of his Mother. Both kept silent,” he said.

Palm Sunday is celebrated as the local “World Youth Day” for Italians. Pope Francis invited the young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to read his recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Christus vivit.

“In this text each of you can find fruitful cues for your life and your journey of growth in faith and in service to your brothers,” Francis said.

At the conclusion of the liturgy, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus with the crowd, he then rode through St. Peter’s Square on the popemobile, greeting pilgrims.

“Dear young people, do not be ashamed to show your enthusiasm for Jesus, to shout out that he is alive and that he is your life. Yet at the same time, do not be afraid to follow him on the way of the cross,” Pope Francis said.

He continued, “when you hear that he is asking you to renounce yourselves, to let yourselves be stripped of every security, and to entrust yourselves completely to our Father in heaven, then rejoice and exult! You are on the path of the kingdom of God.”

Pope Francis makes surprise visit to Alzheimer's patients

Rome, Italy, Apr 12, 2019 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to a center for Alzhiemer’s patients Friday afternoon.

With this visit to the Emmanuel Village on the outskirts of Rome, the pope desired to turn attention to the exclusion and loneliness Alzhiemer’s disease can bring to patients and family members, who are often forgotten by society, according to a Vatican statement April 12.

“The continual increase in life expectancy also calls for greater awareness and respect for the needs and dignity of those who live this disease on themselves and those who are close to the patient,” the statement continued.

The afternoon excursion was the latest of Pope Francis’ Mercy Friday visits. The pastoral initiative was originally linked to the Church’s Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, but the pope has chosen to continue the practice as an example of the corporal works of mercy.

Mercy Friday visits have included encounters with the terminally ill, refugees, children, and women free from sex trafficking, among others.

When Pope Francis arrived at the Emmanuel Village, he was greeted with astonishment by the staff and residents. He then toured the center and spoke with patients as they engaged in their recreational activities.

The Alzhiemer’s center is known for its innovation in creating an environment for its patients that allows them to live as close to normality as possible. Each of the patient residences in the “village” is designed to closely resemble the individual’s home.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis met with a group of Belgian Alzhiemer’s patients, who perform together in a choir.

“I think your song is made more precious by your vulnerability,” Pope Francis told the fifteen-member choir who were in Rome for a five-day pilgrimage.

The pope spoke about the importance of honoring the elderly and treating them with tenderness.

“Perhaps some of them have lost their memory, but they are the symbol of the memory of a people; they are the roots of our homeland, of our humanity. They are the roots, and the young must go there to take the sap from the roots, to carry civilization onwards,” Pope Francis said.