Franciscan Order of Friars Investigation Finds Millions of Euros Missing
By Nick Squires
December 19, 2014
|Michael Perry, the American head of the Order of Friars Minor Photo: OFM|
It was founded 800 years ago by St Francis of Assisi, whose name was taken by the current Pope, but the Franciscan order of friars has found itself mired in a financial scandal allegedly involving fraud and embezzlement of tens of millions of euros.
A branch of the Roman Catholic order had invested some of its money in offshore shell companies based in Switzerland, which had in turn been involved in arms and drugs trafficking, Italian media reported.
A three-month-long internal investigation has found extensive financial irregularities at the heart of the Rome-based order, which has around 14,000 members worldwide and owns churches and convents in more than 100 countries.
Michael Perry, the American head of the Order of Friars Minor, took the unusual step of writing an open letter to friars and monks to inform them that the historic order now finds itself in a "grave situation", with millions of euros believed to be missing from its accounts.
He said the General Curia, the governing body of the order, "finds itself in grave, and I underscore 'grave', financial difficulty, with a significant burden of debt."
The general treasurer of the order had resigned, he said.
"The systems of financial oversight and control for the management of the patrimony of the order were either too weak or were compromised, thus limiting their effectiveness to guarantee responsible, transparent management."
Friars belonging to the order were involved in "a number of questionable financial activities" which had placed the financial stability of the order "at grave risk".
"These questionable activities also involve people who are not Franciscan but who appear to have played a central role."
The situation was so serious that Brother Perry has called in a team of lawyers as well as the civil authorities – magistrates and possibly police – to investigate the scandal.
They are now trying to determine "the nature, extent, and impact of what has occurred", he said.
A senior friar with expertise in financial affairs has been appointed to lead the investigation into the alleged fraud and will trawl through records dating back more than a decade.
Pope Francis, who has initiated a radical clean-up of the Vatican bank since being elected in March last year, is believed to have been informed of the scandal.
"We are encouraged by the example set by Pope Francis in his call for truth and transparency in financial dealings both in the Church and in human societies," wrote Brother Perry, 59, whose official title is Minister General of the order.
"I realise that many of you will be seriously disappointed and discouraged by this situation," he said in the letter. "It will also raise many questions for which you have a right to a response."
Brother Perry, who is from Indianapolis, was elected in May last year, succeeding Jose Rodriguez Carballo, whom Pope Francis appointed the head of a Vatican body – the Congregation for Consecrated Life.
The Order of Friars Minor is one of the four main branches of the Franciscan order, which was founded by St Francis of Assisi in 1209.