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Vatican Plagued By Scandal As Pope Francis Sorts Through Its Finances

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to clean up the Vatican's murky finances, and he's made strides in doing so. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the Vatican is still plagued by scandal and intrigue.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Lurid tales of financial malfeasance in the Vatican are making headlines. They paint an image of Pope Francis as a bright white spot in a world of shady figures - black-clad monsignors, financial raiders and middlemen. This month, the pope took the unusual step of appearing publicly with European financial inspectors to reassure them he's cleaning house.

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POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Sometimes," the pope said, "in the effort to amass wealth, there is little concern for where it comes from, whether it was acquired legitimately or through the exploitation of others." Citing Jesus casting the money changers from the temple, Francis said one cannot serve both God and money. That remark was taken as a reference to his firing last month of Cardinal Angelo Becciu. The Vatican did not explain why Becciu was fired as head of the Vatican office on sainthood. But in a previous position, Becciu was in charge of the church's financial investments.

MASSIMILIANO COCCIA: (Through interpreter) Becciu's firing as cardinal is directly linked to our investigation, which revealed Becciu's family affairs had become affairs of state.

POGGIOLI: That's reporter Massimiliano Coccia of the weekly L'Espresso. His recent expose accused Becciu of nepotism, including steering church funds for charity to an NGO run by his brother. L'Espresso previously linked the cardinal to a shady investment in high-end London real estate. The day after he was fired, Becciu called an extraordinary news conference to defend himself. He insisted the money he directed to his brother's NGO was, in fact, for charity. He sounded outraged as he described what he called his surreal meeting with Francis.

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GIOVANNI ANGELO BECCIU: (Through interpreter) He said he no longer trusted me because he had been told by Vatican magistrates that I had embezzled funds.

POGGIOLI: The pope, Becciu said, had been misinformed. What makes this scandal particularly ugly for Francis is Becciu's public confrontation with another once-powerful cardinal, George Pell. Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic Church official found guilty of child sex abuse. He served a year in prison in his native Australia until that country's high court overturned his conviction. But before his legal troubles, Pell was in Rome looking into Vatican finances at the pope's request. He ordered an independent audit of all Vatican departments. Becciu blocked it. At his press conference, Becciu recalled his clash with Pell in the presence of Francis.

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BECCIU: (Through interpreter) Suddenly, Pell accused me of dishonesty. I lost my temper and yelled at him, how dare you say that to me?

POGGIOLI: Italian media have been rife with allegations that Becciu wired money to Australian bank accounts as payment for testimony against Pell. Becciu firmly denies this. Pell has been cagey about whether the alleged payments are linked to the sex abuse case against him.

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GEORGE PELL: I don't have any evidence of that. Most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they are.

POGGIOLI: The Australian man who accused Pell of abusing him has denied he was paid to testify. With the dirty linen on display, Francis is determined to pursue his reforms.

Joshua McElwee is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: The great success of his papacy was bringing the outsider voice, the outsider eye - these great exhortations for the church to get beyond itself, to be the church of the field hospital tending to people's wounds.

POGGIOLI: Near St. Peter's Basilica, a Roman graffiti artist once depicted Francis as airborne, his right fist clenched, his pectoral cross fluttering in the breeze, a white-caped crusader in constant struggle with the Vatican's deeply entrenched culture of secrecy.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATCHING FLIES SONG, "SATISFIED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.