By September 2014 the Friars Minor were left in serious financial difficulties. They were left with only 5275 Euros to cover the management costs of the third most numerous Order of the Catholic Church, with over 13 members across 116 Countries not counting consistent debts and negative cash flow. The mendicant friars founded by Saint Francis, established as independent Order by Leo X in 1517, are on the breadline. They suffered the heavy blow of the financial shortfall of 20 million Euros, caused by a speculative strategy with investments in high-yield funds outside Italy that was not only regrettable but also detrimental. Fr Michael Perry, elected Minister General only a year before, took charge of the situation: “It was a spiritual earthquake. I couldn’t believe that we let ourselves be swindled in this way. And most of all I found it hard to believe that even some of our confreres were involved.”
Responsibility and the judiciary. Shortly after the grave malpractice in the economic and financial management of the general Curia was discovered, it became clear that members of the Order were also involved. Fr. Perry did not get discouraged despite the initial temptation to cover-up the misconduct drawing from alternative financial resources and discretely removing those responsible from their posts:
“I call this method ‘the logic of institutional protectionism’ adopted for a long time by the Church and by the religious in Italy and abroad. The purpose is to safeguard the dignity and the reputation of the institute at all costs, even when it implies sacrificing self-dignity, identity and authenticity, along with the calling to be a prophetic voice for the world.”
Instead the young American friar, who a few days ago was called to share his experience with over 130 General superiors attending the USG assembly, decided to collect – with the help of some priests and a group of lawyers -all the material and the information available. Then, in agreement with the Definitory general, he turned to Italy’s judicial authorities requesting a serious investigation. He thus decided to write and sign an Open letter to all the members of the Order in which he explained, without mincing words, the gravity of the situation.
The scandal exploded in all its gravity: “The first concern was related to the potential adverse effects on the lives of the monks, especially the young and the candidates to the priesthood. During the visits I made after the publication of the letter – he said -, many monks expressed distrust and anger over the scandal. At the same time, however, they also conveyed their gratitude for the decision of the General Definitory to follow the road of transparency and truth.”
Another delicate aspect is the negative impact in terms of the respect and esteem of the faithful. This aspect equally involves the benefactors, “namely those who had entrusted to us their precious resources so that we may use them firstly and primarily for the poor we are called to serve and to support initial formation projects for young priests.”
New rules. The Hotel “Il Cantico” in Rome was also regarded as a negative example of moral corruption before the public opinion. “In reality – said Fr Perry – the purpose of the project was to convert a large disused building in the centre of Rome into a source of income to cover the needs of the Order.” Amidst this tempest the Friars Minor met the hands extended by the entire Franciscan family, and their faithful benefactors joined them. Many of them continue offering their financial support, sometimes even increasing it, with the purpose of supporting the service to the poor. The judicial inquiry into what appears to be a veritable fraud has not ended, but the Order has decided to follow a canonical process to assess the conduct of its members: “It wasn’t easy – assured the Minister General – but
We decided to proceed with canonical action in the name of justice and truth, and to discourage similar negative behaviours from taking place in the future.”
At the same time, a set of measures were adopted to ensure greater, and more comprehensive economic surveillance, starting from a reformulation of structures and monitoring tools in the light of the document: “The Franciscan management of finances.” Two distinct roles were created for the general treasurer and the legal representative and two surveillance committees of monks and lay experts from different parts of the world were set up, tasked with ensuring continuous verification, making suggestions, and checking the correctness of financial reports. To complete the transparency process the Friars Minor will be undergoing an independent economic review, the first in the history of the Order. Economic surveillance, which will not only be entrusted to bursars, will extend to all levels of the Institute including the local fraternities: “The extent of our economic difficulties forced us to come to terms with the fact
We can live with less and we can also live better.
Encouraging signs of prophetic simplicity of life and of the commitment for the poor and the excluded are starting to blossom and spread everywhere.”