Vatican's new money man admits 'enormous' task ahead

The tower of the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), the Vatican bank.

SYDNEY - Australian Cardinal George Pell, appointed by Pope Francis to head a new Vatican finance ministry, admitted Tuesday it will be "an enormous task" to put the Holy See's economic affairs in order.

Pell's plum posting makes him one of the most important men in the Catholic Church, charged with helping overhaul the much-criticised central administration following a wave of scandals, including allegations of waste, corruption and even money-laundering.

The Vatican said in a statement that he "has been asked to start work as soon as possible" as head of the Secretariat for the Economy, a role aimed at helping the poor and increasing transparency.

The Catholic Church in Australia said he will leave as Archbishop of Sydney and begin the new job in late March, after giving evidence at a royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse.

The ministry will prepare an annual budget as well as impose international financial standards, in line with a series of recommendations made by a group of cardinals advising the pope, including for a "more formal commitment" to enforcing transparency.

Pell, 72, said it was a significant move in the right direction, following a series of leaks to the media in 2012 about "numerous situations of corruption and misconduct".

"The review has highlighted that much can be achieved through improved financial planning and reporting as well as enhancements in governance, internal controls and various administrative support functions," said Pell, who will be based in Rome.

"I have always recognised the need for the Church to be guided by experts in this area and will be pleased to be working with the members of the new Council for the Economy as we approach these tasks," he added.

"We need to be open to expert advice and aware of any opportunity to improve the way we conduct our financial administration."

"It is an enormous task and it is important we embrace and implement the recommended changes as soon as practicable."

'Bold move'

Australia's former ambassador to the Vatican Tim Fischer said Pell, among eight cardinals Francis enlisted last year to advise him on reform of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, was well-known for being good with finances.

"It's a bold and wise move by Pope Francis in announcing the appointment of Cardinal Pell to be a kind of budget supremo - long overdue, long needed," he told reporters.

The new ministry will be run by a 15-member council of eight clergymen from different parts of the world and seven lay financial experts.

Francis has said he wants a style of government for the Church that is more "collegial" and less "Vatican-centric" and the process of consultation he used to reach his decision on the new ministry is seen as an example of this.

He reached outside the Church for advice, with the Vatican hiring international consultancy firms such as Ernst&Young, KPMG, Promontory and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

During the 2012 leaks, letters surfaced from Carlo Maria Vigano, the head of the Vatican governorate, who pointed to inflated costs for Vatican works contracts as an example of corruption and misconduct.

Meanwhile, a former top Vatican accountant, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, is currently on trial for attempting to repatriate from Switzerland 20 million euros (S$34 million) that were untaxed, on behalf of some wealthy acquaintances in Naples.

The police have seized Scarano's luxury 17-room apartment in the city of Salerno and blocked nearly nine million euros on accounts linked to the cleric.