‘Deputy pope’ steps down tainted by scandals

Former Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Bertone, pictured with former Pope Benedict XVI. Picture: AFP
Former Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Bertone, pictured with former Pope Benedict XVI. Picture: AFP
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The cardinal widely blamed for failing to prevent a series of ethical and financial scandals during the reign of former Pope Benedict XVI has formally stepped down, ending an era fraught with embarrassments for the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 78, yesterday left his post as secretary of state, the number two in the Vatican hierarchy, and handed over the role of “deputy pope” to Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a 58-year-old diplomat.

Bertone’s departure is the most visible break with the hierarchy left by Benedict and comes as Pope Francis prepares to overhaul the Vatican administration and its scandal-hit bank.

Parolin, a former Vatican nuncio (ambassador) to Venezuela, is known for a frugal lifestyle in tune with the Pope’s own preferences.

He was not present at Tuesday’s handover ceremony, after undergoing surgery while visiting his family in northern Italy.

Francis welcomed Parolin “in absentia” as he thanked Bertone for his service, noting the difficulties and “thorns” that Bertone had endured.

“I want to thank you for the courage and patience with which you lived through the setbacks that you had to confront,” Francis said. “There were a lot.”

Bertone was one of the most controversial secretaries in modern Vatican history. He presided over a period beset by scandals and intrigue and came in for heavy criticism and accusations of mismanagement.

But Benedict, who in February became the first Pope in 600 years to resign, stood by him and dismissed suggestions by other Church leaders that Bertone should be sacked.

In his final weeks on the job, Bertone made clear he didn’t appreciate the finger-pointing, telling reporters last month he had been a victim of a “plot by crows and vipers” to bring him down.

Yesterday, while admitting to some problems, he said overall he judged his tenure “positively”.

In fact in his speech Bertone outlined the highlights of his – and Benedict’s – term, praising improved relations with Jews and even Muslims after Benedict angered the Muslim world with a 2006 speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad were “evil and inhuman”.

Although he has no power to rule on doctrinal issues, the secretary of state sits in when the Pope is ill. He sets the tone for the Vatican’s administration, or Curia, and is involved in everything from finances and the appointment of bishops to diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries

Bertone, who was in post for nearly all of Benedict’s eight-year pontificate, was blamed for not keeping a close enough watch on the Curia, some of whom have been accused of corruption and cronyism.

One of the most damaging scandals under Bertone was “Vatileaks”, when Benedict’s butler stole documents alleging corruption from the Pope’s desk and leaked them to the media.

That coincided with tumult at the Vatican bank, which Italian magistrates are investigating on suspicion of money laundering.

The former president of the bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was close to Bertone. The board of the bank removed Gotti Tedeschi last year, saying he was incompetent. He says he was pushed out because he wanted the bank to be more open.

Bertone was also blamed for not predicting the fallout from Benedict’s decision to rehabilitate a traditionalist bishop who denied the full extent of the Holocaust. He faced resistance by his staff in the Curia because he was put in charge of the diplomatic corps, but was not a diplomat. Francis has said the Curia should be less inward looking and “Vatican-centric”.