As It Happens

Only 10% of Pope's charitable fund goes to the needy: Wall Street Journal

A new Wall Street Journal investigation found that only 10 per cent of the more than 50 million euros ($72 million Cdn) given annually goes to those in need.

The investigation found that most of Pope Francis's Peter's Pence collection went to Vatican budget deficit

A new Wall Street Journal investigation found that only 10 per cent of the Peter's Pence, which is controlled by Pope Francis, is given to those in need. The rest is used to plug the Vatican's growing budget deficit. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
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Every June, Catholics around the world are asked to open their wallets and give generously to a charitable appeal called Peter's Pence.

The Vatican advertises the funds as going toward helping the poor and suffering, but a new Wall Street Journal investigation found that only 10 per cent of the more than 50 million euros ($72 million Cdn) given annually goes to those in need. 

Most of the rest is used to fight the Vatican's growing budget deficit — which doubled in 2018 to more than 70 million euros ($102 million Cdn).

Under church law, the Pope is allowed to use the Peter's Pence in any way that serves his ministry. 

Francis Roccam, the Wall Street Journal's Vatican correspondent, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how the funds are used. Here is part of their conversation.

When the proverbial hat comes around in churches for Peter's Pence, what kind of causes are Catholics being told that money is going to? 

Overwhelmingly the message is that this is going to help the needy, the poor, victims of typhoons, other natural disasters. If you look on the official Vatican website for the collection that's ... clearly the message.

If you read very, very carefully between the lines you might understand that legally the Pope would do whatever he wants with this. But that's not really the message at all.

The website explicitly says that this is a "gesture of charity ... and invitation to pay attention and be near to new forms of poverty and fragility." 

And that's typical of the language. There is more along those lines.

Pope Francis has a lunch with less fortunate people, on November 18, 2018. The Pope chose the name St Francis of Assisi, a saint who lived in poverty, because the pope wanted a church that was "for the poor." (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

So you found that only 10 per cent is being used to support charitable works. Where's the rest going? 

Well that's true at least of the last five years. Two thirds has been going to plug the deficit in the Holy See. This is a deficit in the operations of the central administration of the Catholic Church and the Pope's diplomatic network around the world, which has been running an increasing deficit in recent years due to rising wage costs and unsuccessful investments and inefficiencies.

Just how bad are the Vatican's finances that they need to rely on charitable donations to support their budget?

The Holy See ... doesn't make money, so it has to find it somewhere.

Investments have not been so successful in recent years. 

That's largely the impact because the Vatican bank is able to give less. The other investments in other entities in the Vatican have just been doing poorly and they haven't enacted the kind of reforms that Pope Francis was elected to enact by the cardinals in 2013.

How has the Pope responded? How does he justify that this money is being used overwhelmingly to pay for budget needs?

He hasn't responded. The Vatican didn't respond to our request for comment. And at this point I don't know that they will. 

I think what you do hear unofficially from people is, some people say, "Well he has every legal right to do it."

And that's true. The problem is, again, it's about misleading advertising in this case. It's not about the law. 

Pope Francis presides over a mass. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

These revelations come at a time when Pope Francis said he was going to clean up Vatican expenses. So what effort has he put into doing that? 

We're in the seventh year of a financial reform, a very ambitious one that was laid out.

He had a mandate, that's true, from the Cardinals that elected him in 2013 because there had been a bunch of scandals proceeding in the year before. And so when the new Pope was elected everyone said, "Oh, he has to deal with it." 

And he did create a number of institutions and entities, but things have really seemed to halt or even slid back in recent times.

After a two-and-a-half year hiatus, he finally replaced Cardinal George Pell, the head of the finance office who's been convicted of child sex abuse in Australia.

So it's hard to avoid the impression that things are really sort of sliding back to the bad old days before the reforms began.

Catholics around the world have been very distressed by the sex scandals and how much of the money needs to be spent on compensating people. ... Do you think that these kinds of revelations will make it even more difficult for people to cough up when the plate comes around? 

Absolutely. I'm sure it will have an impact, unless they change their approach. 

I mean some people here argue privately, you know, "We just need to come around and say. 'Look, the Pope doesn't make money. His ministry is very important. He needs to, you know, evangelize the whole world. And so please help us support his ministry.'"

And they feel confident that a lot of people would do that. But they'll need to reorient their advertising strategy very quickly.

Peter's Pence collection has been dropping, and it's expected to drop a lot more for 2019.


Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.