Pope moves top official amid leaks fallout

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful during the Angelus noon prayer he celebrated from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI blessed the faithful for the first time since announcing his resignation, cheered by an emotional crowd of tens of thousands of well-wishers from around the world. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

February 22, 2013 7:10:25 AM PST
In one of his last appointments, the pope on Friday transferred a top official from the Vatican's secretariat of state to Colombia amid swirling media speculation about the contents of a confidential report into the Vatican's leaks scandal.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed the transfer of Monsignor Ettore Balestrero had been months in the works, was an important promotion and had nothing to do with what the Vatican considers baseless reporting.

Balestrero was named undersecretary of the Vatican's Foreign Ministry in 2009 and, among other tasks, has been a lead player in the Holy See's efforts to get on the "white list" of financially transparent countries. Pope Benedict XVI, who steps down Feb. 28, named him ambassador, or nunzio, to Colombia.

Italian newspapers for days have been rife with unsourced reports about the contents of the dossier, presented to Benedict in December, that three cardinals prepared after investigating the origins of the leaks. The scandal erupted last year after papers taken from the pope's desk were published in a blockbuster book. The pope's butler was convicted in October of aggravated theft, and later pardoned.

The Vatican has refused to comment on the media reports, which have claimed the contents of the dossier were a factor in Benedict's decision to resign. Benedict himself has said he simply no longer has the "strength of mind and body" to be pope. Lombardi has indicated that Benedict would meet with the three cardinals before stepping down.

Balestrero was head of the Holy See's delegation to the Council of Europe's Moneyval committee, which evaluated the Vatican's anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing measures. The Vatican submitted itself to Moneyval's evaluation in a bid to improve its reputation in the financial world.

The Vatican passed the test on the first try in August, and Moneyval said it had made great progress in a short amount of time. But the Holy See received poor or failing grades for its financial watchdog agency and its bank, long the source of some of the Vatican's more storied scandals.

Some of the documents leaked in the midst of the "Vatileaks" scandal concerned differences of opinion about the level of financial transparency the Holy See should provide about the bank, the Institute for Religious Works.

The Vatican is now working to comply with Moneyval's recommendations before the next round of evaluation. Lombardi said the lengthy Moneyval process would simply be handled by someone else now that Balestrero is leaving. The nunciature in Colombia is one of the most important in Latin America, and Vatican officials said the move was a clear promotion for Balestrero.

Lombardi noted that the nunciature is the headquarters for the Latin American bishops' conference as well as the regional organization for religious orders, and is usually headed by someone who has had experience as a nuncio in at least two other postings.

"The procedure for this nomination was started some time ago, as evidenced by the fact that the agreement (with Colombia) has already been reached," Lombardi told The Associated Press. "It was started well before the pope's resignation, so it's completely unfounded to link it to the news articles in recent days."

Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, the Opus Dei canon lawyer who headed the cardinal's commission, has spoken in vague terms about the report and the well-known divisions within the Vatican Curia that were exposed by the leaks.

"Certainly, it has been said that this was a hypothesis behind the pope's resignation, but I think we need to respect his conscience," Herranz told Radio24 last week. "Certainly, there are divisions and there have always been divisions, as well as violent contrapositions along ideological lines. These aren't new, but yes, they have a weight."

Herranz, who was the Vatican's top legislator before retiring, was joined on the commission by Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko and Italian Cardinal Salvatore De Giorgio. The committee had broad-ranging powers to question Vatican officials, including cardinals, beyond the purely criminal scope of investigation carried out by Vatican prosecutors against the butler.