Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Red Pope" Probed: Sepe Under Scrutiny

Another day... another stunner from the Home Office: long a Vatican star, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples has reportedly been placed under civil investigation by Italian authorities over suspicions of his involvement in an official corruption scheme.

A native of southern Italy, Sepe's talents at staging the spectacular and managing the impossible made him a favorite of the late Pope John Paul II. In 1984, as head of the Secretariat of State's information wing, the young official recruited two of the leading media figures of John Paul's pontificate: the celebrated spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, and the L'Osservatore Romano editor Mario Agnes, both of whom remained in post until shortly after the Polish Pope's 2005 death.

By 1987, Sepe became the Holy See's "deputy chief of staff" on his appointment as assessore of State. Five years later, John Paul ordained him an archbishop on naming him secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, then entrusted him with the most cherished project of the last pontificate: planning the celebrations of the Great Jubilee of 2000.

Weeks after the Jubilee's close, Sepe became the youngest Curial cardinal created in decades as he received the red hat at age 57 and was made the church's lead overseer of the missions as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples -- a post long known as the "Red Pope" thanks to its sizable clout in overseeing church matters in the developing world, and the fiscal heft that comes with it.

Having placed his firm stamp on the operations of the office once formally called the "Propaganda Fide" during his tenure at its helm, in 2006 -- in a move widely viewed as an "exile" from the Curia -- Benedict XVI sent Sepe, now 67, to Naples as archbishop in succession to Cardinal Michele Giordano, whose tenure likewise included a period of legal turmoil before he was acquitted in late 2000 on charges of involvement in a loan-sharking scheme and supporting the activity with diocesan funds.

Unlike the Giordano case, Sepe's entanglement in the current investigation (known in Italy as "Great Works") stems not from Naples, but the cardinal's days at the Propaganda and his ties to a onetime Italian transport minister -- a link which, so it's alleged, saw Sepe "offer cut-price property deals" on pieces of the congregation's portfolio.

According to the AP, the investigation's attention has likewise extended to whether "corruption influenced the awarding of billions of euros worth of contracts for such mega-projects as preparing 2000 Holy Year events in Rome":
[Sepe] says he will co-operate with the investigation despite his immunity as a Vatican diplomatic passport holder....

He now faces investigation alongside [Pietro] Lunardi, a former minister in the centre-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, under the scope of an magistrates' investigation into a major corruption scandal involving prominent politicians.

According to newspaper reports in Italy, the pair are alleged to have colluded over a property deal that saw Mr Lunardi buy a building in Rome from Cardinal Sepe's department in 2004.

The building was sold at a price noticeably below market value, it is alleged....

Emerging from church in Naples on Sunday, Cardinal Sepe told reporters: "The truth will emerge ... I am serene."
In the homily at his morning Mass today, Sepe appeared to refer implicitly to the probe, speaking of the "many martyrs" who, "in the name of truth and of Christ, remained faithful to his Gospel when they were tortured, humiliated and disrespected."

"We must not be afraid," he said, according to an Italian wire report. "After Calvary, there will be the light of the resurrection."

In yet another rapid response -- and on a Sunday, no less -- earlier today the Holy See Press Office director, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, issued the following statement:
"Firstly I would like to express my esteem and solidarity with Cardinal Sepe at this difficult time. Cardinal Sepe is a person who has worked, and continues to work, for the Church and the people entrusted to him in an intense and generous manner, and as such has the right to be respected and esteemed.

"Then, naturally, we all hope and trust that the situation will be fully and rapidly clarified, so as to eliminate all shadow of doubt regarding both him personally and Church institutions. Cardinal Sepe -- as he has already stated – will collaborate for his part to clarify this situation. Naturally the procedural aspects and juridical profile implicit in the correct relations between the Holy See and Italy, will have to be taken into account, should they eventually be connected to this episode."
A similar show of support came from the president of the Italian bishops, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, who phoned Sepe to assure him of "affectionate closeness in this particular moment," according to a spokesman for the Italian conference.