S'pore friars 'not affected' by money crisis at HQ

The Franciscan Order founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, who advocated a life of poverty, is in deep financial trouble following the discovery of massive fraud and is appealing for help.

The Franciscan friars in Singapore said yesterday that they were not affected by a financial scandal exposed by the worldwide head of their Catholic religious order.

Last week, Friar Michael Perry, leader of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), revealed that the organisation which has its headquarters in Rome is broke after "questionable financial activities" by some members.

The friars in Singapore declined to comment on the scandal, but assured donors that funds here are unaffected.

"There has been no impact, as we have never invested with them," said Father Clifford Augustine, parish priest of the Church of St Mary of the Angels, which the friars run in Bukit Batok East.

The local chapter of the OFM is registered as a company limited by guarantee, which means that every dollar is accounted for by local auditors, he explained.

"Our accounts are on our website and can be viewed by the public. The link we have to Rome is in the administration of the life and brotherhood of the friars," he said.

The Bukit Batok church has a congregation of about 7,000 Catholics and is the only parish in Singapore run by the friars.

The OFM is one of the four main branches of the Franciscan order founded in the 13th century by St Francis of Assisi, who was known for advocating a life of poverty.

Its financial woes were disclosed in a rare open letter published on its website last Wednesday.

It said that in September, a probe began into the activities of the office of the order's general treasurer dating back to 2003.

The letter, addressed to all friars, said the general treasurer had resigned but gave no other details, Reuters reported.

Italian news magazine Panorama reported that tens of millions of euros of funds from the order had been invested in offshore shell companies, Reuters said last Friday.

These companies had in turn been involved in arms and drugs trafficking, The Telegraph cited Italian media as reporting.

Brother Perry said the fraud was conducted "by friars entrusted with the care of the patrimony of the order".

He also said people outside the church were involved, The Guardian reported. "These questionable activities also involve people who are not Franciscan but who appear to have played a central role," he said.

A senior friar will be leading the probe into the alleged fraud, while civil authorities are also involved in the case.

Pope Francis, who has launched a clean-up and reform of the Vatican bank since being elected in March last year, is believed to have been informed of the scandal, The Telegraph said.

"We are encouraged by the example set by Pope Francis in his call for truth and transparency in financial dealings in the church and in human societies," Brother Perry wrote.

Pope Francis has called on the Vatican bank to be more transparent and accountable, as part of his effort to reform the church's bureaucracy after a series of scandals plagued the bank, including allegations of shady property deals.


This article was first published on December 21, 2014.
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