Letters

The Church Could Use the Courage of Alexei Navalny

At the end of July, one of the highest ranking clerics in the Vatican, and a one-time close confidante of Pope Francis, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, went on trial for alleged financial crimes. The trial is noteworthy not only because of the extent of the alleged crimes, the spending of what would be $412 million dollars in American money, but it is also noteworthy that since up until some recent Curial adjustments by Pope Francis, no alleged wrongdoing by Vatican officials ever needed to be adjudicated in civil court. Up until April, cardinals and bishops accused of crimes would be judged by other cardinals, not by lay judges.
The Cardinal denies any wrongdoing. The charges against him also accuse him of funneling Church donations to his brothers in their native Sardinia. There are nine other defendants also accused of crimes including extortion, embezzlement, money-laundering and abuse of office, and all of them, cardinals, monsignors, and lay people, could face jail terms or fines, or both.
One would like to think that this signals an end to corruption in the Church, and it may very well make those at the Vatican think twice before they are “careless” about the use of funds which do not belong to them. Pope Francis, however, has a long way to go before coming close to cleaning up the corruption that exists under the roofs of all churches which call themselves Catholic.

Corruption need not be at the level of former cardinal Becciu or some important Russian oligarch. Perhaps the more sinister kind of corruption is the virtually unnoticed misdeeds which eat at the very heart of an organization until it is no longer recognized for what it was originally intended to be. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that what Bishop Dewane has done to St. Isabel Church is criminal, and as long as there is little to no accountability outside the walls of the Catholic Center in Venice, the corruption will remain unabated and continue to erode what Church is meant to be.
In a startlingly frank letter from a prison somewhere in Russia, Alexei Navalny, the famous poisoned, and then jailed, Russian opposition activist, maintains that only action against corruption can solve the world’s [Church’s?] biggest problems. In an article posted in The Guardian on August 19th, the year anniversary of Navalny’s poisoning, Navalny courageously points to the failures in Afghanistan (and other places) as a failure to address the root of the problems – the problem of corruption. Had those who plundered the budget of the Vatican been fearful of answering to a higher court for their corruption, perhaps it might never have happened.

Within the Vatican, where were the checks and balances that would have prevented ten individuals from squandering millions of dollars that was not theirs? Navalny states that “it is not we who should feel awkward about confronting corrupt authoritarians with tough questions and getting personal but, on the contrary, [it is] they who should know that their shady dealings will invariably be the main focus of [public] discussions….”
Pope Francis knows what Navalny writes to be true: “combatting corruption without combatting corrupt individuals is the merest hypocrisy and undermines [people’s] trust.” The Becciu trial in Rome is no mere show trial, and allowing the Pope’s former close friend to be brought to suffer the embarrassment of a necessary and public pursuit of justice indicates how important confronting corruption is for Pope Francis.
Yet, if Pope Francis wants to do something for the Church at large, then he needs to set his sights beyond the walls of the Vatican and address the nature and make-up of Bishops’ Conferences all over the world, for they hypocritically refuse to look at the very root causes of what has increasingly made them irrelevant. Assuming similarities to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, most bishops have shielded themselves from any oversight which might shed a light on the kind of corruption that is causing people to leave the church in droves.

For almost five years now, Bishop Frank Dewane has run roughshod over the church community of St. Isabel. His feigned concern for the welfare of this community, and, indeed, any church community, is directly proportionate to the church’s ability to contribute to his coffers, a sum which has only increased in the years of his sad tenure. Were Bishop Dewane serious about the welfare of all of “his” churches one might be viewing some sincere effort to bring the assessments of all the church’s down in a sign of post-pandemic mercy. 
Millions of dollars are available to Bishop Dewane, in the estate he lives on in Sarasota, and in the two houses designated for the bishop in Venice. Sell it all Bishop Dewane, and live more simply like most of your priests live. Get rid of the corruption at St. Isabel by finding a trustworthy staff, who are paid salaries commensurate with their duties, restore the original Women’s Guild who were so callously dismissed, and revitalize the organizations who could breathe life back into the torpid semblance of what should be vibrant organizations. Take a vow Bishop Dewane to tell the truth, something that would frighten most bishops, and promise to never ruin the reputation of another one of your priests. Remove the needless and grossly unfair no trespassing citations leveled against three people. Display the kind of transparency in running the Diocese that the faithful deserve, and shun the kind of bullying which has become the hallmark of your tenure. Finally, Bishop Dewane, if you wish to purge the diocese of the evil of corruption, and you should, consider if you will early retirement and become accustomed to the comfortable existence you are undeservedly entitled to, regardless of what kind of a job you did during your tenure.

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